Rep. Dan Ugaste: Here’s how to combat opportunity deserts in Illinois

For years, Illinois Democrats have been fixated on the concept of food deserts, with new Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson proposing a government-run grocery store as a solution. However, it’s crucial to recognize that food deserts are merely a symptom of a more profound problem: opportunity deserts.

This issue disproportionately affects minority families and has been glaringly highlighted by a recent study by WalletHub ranking Illinois dead last in racial economic equity. If you’re fortunate enough to not live in an opportunity desert, consider yourself blessed. Nevertheless, these areas are a cancer that can spread, and no region in the state is immune.

An opportunity desert is a place where job opportunities are scarce, businesses are reluctant to invest and families struggle to thrive. Private enterprises, such as grocery stores, often find it economically unviable to operate in these areas.

How to combat opportunity deserts? Three ways: Provide access to a quality education, safe neighborhoods and a reasonable tax and regulatory environment. With all three in place, success is nearly guaranteed. However, the absence of any one of these elements can be devastating to a community. Unfortunately, many parts of Illinois are grappling with all three challenges, leading to a catastrophic combination.

Illinois boasts some of the nation’s best public schools alongside some of the worst. The reliance on property tax dollars to fund our public school system results in a “have” and “have not” system with less affluent areas often plagued by underperforming schools, disproportionately affecting minority communities.

It’s no surprise that job creators shy away from high-crime areas. The direct correlation between crime rates and the exodus of businesses is evident. Policies that reduce penalties for criminal activities have inflicted severe harm on entire communities. How can you convince businesses to move into challenged neighborhoods when young adult lawbreaking is viewed as mere indiscretion?

Want to strengthen the economy of opportunity deserts? Start with state’s attorneys who understand the need for consequences.

The tax and regulatory climate exacerbate the problem. For instance, Winnetka, with a median household income of well over $250,000, pays less than one-third of the property tax rate than south suburban Harvey residents, with a median household income of less than $36,000. It’s worth noting that Harvey predominantly is a minority community, whereas Winnetka has no Black residents, according to census data.

I am a sponsor of legislation aimed at reducing property taxes by approximately 50% in some of the hardest-hit areas over the next 22 years. That legislation is dying at the hands of a Democrat-controlled House and Senate. Where is the outrage?

Teresa Haley, president of the NAACP Illinois State Conference, succinctly summed up the issues in a recent radio interview: “People are leaving Illinois because of high taxes. People are leaving Illinois because they can’t find a job, or the rich get richer and the poor stay poor.”

Solutions exist to restore opportunity, including in education. I not only supported but also proposed expanding the Invest in Kids Act. Sadly, that program, which provides scholarships to families to escape poorly performing public schools, is a top target for elimination by Democrats during the veto session.

For two decades, Illinois Democrats have held near-total control of the state, and Cook County has been under their sway for a century. While their intentions may be noble, their policies are harming the very groups they claim to protect.

Opportunity deserts exist because of them, and voters can and should hold them accountable.

This Op-Ed by State Representative Dan Ugaste was published in the Chicago Tribune on October 24.