Is Chicago that different than Egypt? You might be surprised.


On Friday’s edition of the Barbershop Show, our weekly radio broadcast on Vocalo from Carter’s Barbershop in Lawndale, we asked the question: Could it happen here?

“It” was three major world events–the possible nuclear meltdown in Japan, Egypt’s popular revolution and Wisconsin’s struggle over collective bargaining rights.

It was my job to research Egypt, and I started out skeptical: Could the levels of inequality that prompted Egypt’s revolution really be found here in Chicago?

But I was shocked with what I found.

I looked at statistics in five major areas: inequality, poverty, length of tenure of political officials, political participation and youth unemployment. Take a look at what I found.


The United Nations has a measure of inequality for the difference between what poor and rich citizens of a nation have and what kind of gap divides them. It’s called the Gini index (pronounced Gin-ee). It’s a score from 0 to 100, with 0 being perfect equality and 100 being perfect inequality.

What’s Egypt’s Gini index? In 2001, the last time it was measured, Egypt had an inequality index of 34.4.

And the United States? Our most recent calculation was 45, a full 10 points above Egypt.

But Chicago’s was the most shocking. Our Gini index is 52.2. By that measure, inequality in Chicago is much worse than Egypt.


Egypt deals with high poverty rates. About 20 percent of its population lives under the poverty line and another 20 percent lives just above it.

The U.S. deals with significantly lower poverty rates–just 12 percent of our citizens nationwide live in poverty.

But Chicago is not so fortunate. When I used the American Community Survey’s 2009 data to calculate poverty rates in Chicago, I was surprised. Out of 2,770,820 Chicagoans, about 576,344 of them lived in poverty. That’s about 20.8 percent.

And just above the poverty line? I figured out how many people live within 200 percent of the poverty line, the stat that most social scientists use in the U.S. to find people who are “low-income.” That adds another 20.64 percent to our poverty total.

About 40 percent of Egypt is dealing with poverty, and about 40 percent of Chicago is doing the same.

Now, what poverty means in Chicago vs. Egypt may be vastly different. But if a people’s revolution is sparked by what you see in your own country, is that disparity as relevant? I don’t know.

Tenure of Political Officials

Egypt’s protests revolved around ousting their long-staying political leader, Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak was the president of Egypt for 30 years until he stepped down just weeks ago.

Our long standing political leader–Mayor Richard M. Daley–will also step down this May. He was in office from 1989 to 2011–22 years. His father, Richard J. Daley, served for 21 years. So combined, the Daleys have 13 extra years on Mubarak.

Mubarak’s regime was marked by political corruption, bribes and patronage. Sound like anybody you know?

Political Participation

In this most recent election, we had a record level of voter turnout–42 percent. It’s not exactly spectacular, but compared to the years previous, it was impressive. In the 2003 and 2007 municipal elections, at the height of Daley’s tenure, voter turnout was at 33 percent.

How many Egyptians cast ballots during Mubarak’s time in office? In the ’80s and ’90s, the number varied between 40 and 50 percent. But in the most recent election in 2005, voter turnout was only 28.13 percent.

Why bother voting when you already know who is going to win?

Youth Unemployment

Leagues of young Egyptians who can’t find work were said to have prompted the revolution. According to the U.N. youth unemployment in Egypt was 34.1 percent in 2005, meaning more than a third of young Egyptians ages 15 to 24 couldn’t find a job.

In Chicago, total youth unemployment isn’t anywhere near as bad–only 13 percent. But when I zeroed in on black youth unemployment rates, I saw a difference. Black youth in Chicago are unemployed at a rate of nearly 22 percent. This is one category where Egypt clearly has us beat, but the numbers in Chicago are still rather shocking.

So, could Chicago rise up and have a people’s revolution? We’re certainly not advocating a violent overthrow of the government. But to just look at the numbers, it’s clear that we’re dealing with many of the same problems.

Will our citizens rise up and demand better? We’ll have to wait and see.

Photo credit: Nick Bygon

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