In a community room in Chicago’s Homan Square neighborhood on Tuesday, Jamie Dimon sat down with a few Chicagoans trying to boost their job skills, and others working to help South and West side residents share in the economic growth other parts of the city have seen.
Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, the nation’s largest bank by deposits, asked what kinds of financial coaching programs participants had found helpful and if they’d shared what they learned with their children. After a woman talked about the challenges of not only dealing with a medical emergency, but the damage that unpaid or late fees for ambulances and emergency rooms can do to a credit score, Dimon, who reportedly has a net worth of more than a billion dollars, said it sounded “grossly unfair.” He asked how business was at a social enterprise that gives jobs to people who previously were incarcerated, and congratulated the founder on its growth.
Dimon is taking a personal interest in one of his bank’s recent investments: a pledge to infuse $40 million into Chicago’s South and West sides, aiming to use economic growth to tackle violence and poverty.
That meant meeting with stakeholders and program participants Tuesday. Wednesday, he was scheduled to take his message to the Economic Club of Chicago.
“The question is how can we replicate (what works) and roll it out faster,” Dimon said.
Chase’s three-year Chicago initiative, announced in September, amounts to a 50 percent increase in Chase’s philanthropic contributions in the city. It is the bank’s second-biggest commitment to a single city, following a $150 million undertaking in Detroit.
The experiment in Detroit convinced the bank it wanted to take a similar approach to investing in other cities, as long as it felt confident local government and other institutions would buy in, Dimon said.
“I think the biggest lesson, for it to actually work and not just be a waste of time and money, is that civic society, some of these not-for-profits or schools, the mayor, sometimes the governor, have to be all lined up,” he said in an interview after the meeting. “Because other than that, you’re just spinning your wheels.”
Chase said it’s invested more than $10 million of the $40 million promised in Chicago, with grants to community organizations funding job training, small business expansion, neighborhood revitalization and personal financial health programs.
Just over half that sum, $5.7 million, has gone to workforce readiness initiatives, including a program at the North Lawndale Employment Network, developed with the Chicago Transit Authority, that trains participants for jobs as rail and bus mechanics, with a focus on serving people returning from incarceration.
Two graduates, Jovan Sams and Nitayanda Bell, now CTA rail and bus mechanics, respectively, said they struggled to find well-paid, full-time work until joining the program, which gave them training to qualify for those jobs but also prepared them to address questions about their background during a job interview.
“One of the key lessons here is that people make poor choices when they have poor options,” Brenda Palms-Barber, executive director of the North Lawndale Employment Network, told Dimon and leaders of Chase’s philanthropy program who attended the meeting.
Initiatives helping individuals improve personal financial health are another focus of Chase’s Chicago investment. So far those efforts have received $850,000 of the $40 million, including a program at Mercy Housing Lakefront that put a caseworker specializing in financial coaching in a new affordable family housing development in North Lawndale.
Another $2 million of Chase’s funds has gone to programs assisting small businesses, and about $1.9 million to projects that aim to spur residential, commercial and retail development projects in South and West side neighborhoods.
Mercy Housing Lakefront President Mark Angelini praised the work that’s been done so far, but said creating lasting change in struggling neighborhoods will take more than $40 million.
“No one source can solve this, especially in a state like Illinois that’s been so fiscally unstable, but we hope it’s sort of a down payment and hope they’re in it for the long haul,” he said in an interview.
Chase has gotten buy-in from other companies on past projects and is seeing interest in Chicago, Dimon said. “You need the other partners. You want to use the money and brainpower and ideas to accelerate and amplify what gets done well,” he said.
Palms-Barber was enthusiastic about Chase’s interest in spreading ideas. She thinks the transportation job-training program could be successful elsewhere, but having Chase’s stamp of approval would make her pitch much easier, she said.
Chase could also benefit from the endorsement of organizations like Palms-Barber’s in communities that can be skeptical of outside institutions without a local partner.
Asked if residents in neighborhoods that have seen long-term disinvestment like North Lawndale trust promises from a bank, Dimon pointed to Sams’ comments about benefiting from financial coaching.
“He doesn’t bank with us, but he’s come to trust his bank. And you should do the right thing anyway. Even if the answer’s no, what do you want me to do, not do the right thing?” he said. “Where we do business, we hopefully earn the trust of people. That’s the goal.”
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