Commuters make their way back to the train station during...

Commuters make their way back to the train station during snow storm Feb. 7 in Chicago. Credit: AP

Rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson is a Tribune Media Services columnist.

Chicago is in trouble. The Great Recession has devastated working and poor families, while worsening already severe racial disparities. The misery makes long-festering problems less and less bearable. Declining revenues and increasing needs mean the city must make clear choices of priorities.

At the national level, poverty has become the word that no politician dare speak. The crisis of our cities is not on the agenda. Glaring and unsustainable inequalities of income and wealth -- a country where the wealthiest 1 percent captures 24 percent of the income -- are widely ignored.

The Chicago mayoral race offers a chance to break the silence. Taking place this year, it will not be overwhelmed by the national election. With a former U.S. senator and a former White House chief of staff in the race, it gains the attention of the national press corps. So we challenge the candidates: Give us a debate worthy of a great city in trouble.

In Chicago, unemployment remains near double-digit levels. Black unemployment is nearly twice the level of whites. In Illinois, unemployment among young African-Americans ages 20-24 is one in three, the third-worst rate in the country. Poverty is spreading, as food stamps reach record heights and food kitchens are overwhelmed by demand. Income has dropped generally across the metropolitan region by more than 10 percent over the last year. Since 2000, Illinois has lost over 200,000 manufacturing jobs. The service jobs that are left provide less pay and less security. What is the urban development plan for reviving Chicago?

Disgraceful racial disparities continue to take a brutal toll. As the official Illinois Disproportionate Justice Impact Study Commission reported, drug abuse is about the same among all races, but African-Americans and Latinos are more likely to be stopped by police, more likely to be sniffed by dogs, more likely to be arrested, more likely to be charged and more likely to be incarcerated and serve more time for the same nonviolent crime. What is the plan to remedy these injustices?

African-American women are 62 percent more likely to die from breast cancer than white women in Chicago, in significant part because there are no cancer-treating hospitals in their neighborhoods. This disparity does not exist in other cities.

In this city, African-Americans and Latinos, disproportionately poor, suffer a higher incidence of low-weight babies. Our children are less likely to have a secure home or adequate nutrition. They are more likely to go to crowded schools with inadequate facilities and materials, with teachers less likely to be trained in the subjects they teach. Testing only proves what we know: that they are falling behind, while reducing schools to drill and kill exercises that crush any imagination.

We need a debate that addresses the real challenges we face. Skilled politicians have learned how to duck any question. But now, in this crisis, we need leaders who will be clear about how we get out of the hole we are in.

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