The City of Chicago’s notorious unfunded pension obligations have ballooned to more than $35 billion, a shortfall that ranks among the largest in the nation. Annual payments on those obligations are now equal to half the City's main operating fund and growing, squeezing out other priorities and new investments. 

Meanwhile, in the recent mayoral election, Chicagoans made clear that they want new spending on infrastructure, neighborhood reinvestment, community policing, and many other city services. One does not have to be an accountant to recognize that this is not sustainable. Chicago’s leaders have debated solutions to this pension funding problem for years, but it is clear that new ideas and new approaches are needed.

With these challenges in mind, the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy is launching the Harris Policy Innovation Challenge, a student competition to identify new approaches to tackle these longstanding pension issues. Student teams from across the University (teams must include at least one Harris student), will have the chance to devise a package of solutions including, but not limited to: new revenue sources; changes to pension investment policies; legal requirements on future contributions; constitutional amendments; and/or changes to actuarial assumptions.

“At the Harris School of Public Policy, we pride ourselves on training a new generation of smart, serious, and dedicated policymakers committed to confronting our world’s most pressing issues,” said Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, Harris Public Policy’s interim dean and Sydney Stein Professor. “This initiative provides a terrific opportunity for them to apply their insights, analysis, and creativity toward solving one of the most important real-world challenges facing the city of Chicago – even before they graduate.”

Research Professor Justin Marlowe

Led by Justin Marlowe, a Harris research professor focused on public finance, the new policy competition will feature seminars throughout the fall and winter quarters—led by both faculty and outside experts including high-ranking city officials, investment professionals, and labor union leaders —on topics that will help students gain perspective and build necessary skills to meet the challenge.

“We want teams to work towards serious, viable proposals for policy steps to address the pension crisis,” said Marlowe, who is also faculty director of Harris’ Center for Municipal Finance. “That’s why we’re involving real-world practitioners to ensure that students look at solutions holistically.”

Through Harris’ vast and diverse network of scholars, practitioners, and partners, the school will provide students with feedback on their working proposals from leaders in government, business, labor, and other stakeholders. Students will be given access to seed funding, robust support, and ongoing mentorship and expert networking.

At the close of the project in the spring, a panel of experts will select three finalists. At a closing event on April 3, to which members of the press, policymakers, and the community will be invited, the finalists will present their proposals and the expert panel will select a winner based on novelty, efficacy, and political feasibility. A financial award of $10,000 will be given to the team with the most compelling and promising policy proposal.

To learn more about the Harris Policy Innovation Challenge, including important dates and information on how to register, please visit the competition's microsite.

HPIC logo