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Downtown Chicago view from Damen Silos

A view of downtown Chicago from the Damen Silos on the South Side. Overall, Chicago has seen growth in key economic areas like household income and higher education.

Manuel Martinez

Household income and education levels are on the rise in most parts of the Chicago area

Chicago and suburban Cook County have experienced positive changes over the past decade in several key economic indicators, including improved salaries, but some areas continue to see extreme levels of unemployment.

The city and the near suburbs have increased household incomes — even when adjusting for inflation — and have a higher percentage of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree, according to a WBEZ analysis of recently released census data. The rates of poverty and unemployment have also lowered in the city and suburban Cook County. However, that economic growth is not being witnessed in all parts of Chicago and its nearby suburbs.

Between the five-year periods ending in 2012 and 2022, the median household income in Chicago grew from $59,000 to more than $71,000 (in inflation-adjusted 2022 dollars). For all of Cook County, median household income improved from about $68,000 to more than $78,000.

In addition, the share of adults with a four-year college degree or higher level of education increased from 34% to 42% in the city. In suburban Cook County, it rose from 35% to 40%.

Meanwhile, unemployment in Chicago dipped from 12.9% to about 8.2%. In suburban Cook County it fell from 10.1% to less than 5.8%. Poverty rates among families also dropped — from 12.9% to 9.2% in the city and from 5.2% to 4.6% in suburban Cook County.

Each year, as part of its American Community Survey, the U.S. Census Bureau captures information about a wide range of topics including education, income, migration, employment and home ownership, among many other categories. Every December, the census bureau shares a dataset combining five years worth of that annual survey information to provide estimates for each census tract in the nation. Census tracts are one of the most commonly used geographies for which the bureau collects information. There are more than 84,000 census tracts in the nation, and Chicago community areas consist largely of collections of these tracts.

Census tracts vary in size and population. In Chicago, they average about four- to five-square city blocks with roughly 3,500 residents. In suburban Cook County, on average, census tracts are more than twice that size with about 4,000 residents.

While the overall picture for the city and county is one of economic growth, the picture is more nuanced when you zoom in on individual census tracts.

Things are improving for most census tracts in Chicago and suburban Cook County, but some are struggling with lower levels of income and education and soaring figures for poverty and unemployment.

In fact, Cook County has more areas with extreme unemployment than any other U.S. county. And the gap between Cook County’s highest-earning and lowest-earning areas ranks among the widest in the nation. In addition, the positive changes in some parts of the county — particularly in gentrifying neighborhoods in Chicago — might be largely due to an influx of new residents.

WBEZ analyzed the numbers for Cook County census tracts — comparing the five-year dataset for 2018 to 2022 with the one from 2008 to 2012.

Most city and suburban Cook County census tracts have experienced positive changes in education, income, poverty and unemployment

Some of the most notable changes were observed in the West Town, Logan Square, Lake View and Belmont Cragin community areas.

Unemployment and poverty levels declined in most of the census tracts in those communities. Meanwhile, most areas also saw increases in median household income and education levels.

Some of the highest increases in median household income occurred in gentrifying Chicago communities

Logan Square is often held up as the poster child for gentrifying Chicago communities. The community has transitioned from mostly working-class and Latino to majority white and middle-class.

A great deal of Logan Square’s transition has been witnessed along the Bloomingdale Trail, often referred to as “The 606.” The census tract with the highest percentage growth in median household income — a whopping 315% increase — sits along the western end of The 606. The census tract bordered by Central Park, Armitage, St. Louis and Bloomingdale avenues had a median household income (adjusted for inflation to 2022 dollars) of roughly $20,000 in the 2008-2012 data. A decade later, that figure was more than four times higher, about $84,000.

Cook County has one of the nation’s widest gaps in median household income

At about $13,500, the lowest median household income in Cook County is found in the southern half of Chicago’s Fuller Park community area. This slender census tract runs along both sides of the Dan Ryan Expressway between 47th and 55th streets.

There are nine census tracts with the highest median income of $250,000 — that’s the top-level value provided by the census bureau in the 2018-2022 data. Most of those areas are along the North Shore in suburban Winnetka, Kenilworth and Glencoe. They also include one census tract each in the western suburbs of Hinsdale and Oak Park, and Chicago’s Lincoln Park community.

The median household income of those highest-earning tracts is about 19 times more than the figure for the Fuller Park census tract. That 19-to-1 ratio ranks as the 16th widest gap between the highest- and lowest-earning census tract among more than 3,000 counties nationwide.

In some areas, nearly all adults have a bachelor’s degree, and in other areas almost no one does

Cook County’s bachelor’s-degree-belt — where a majority of residents have four-year degrees in most census tracts — stretches from Chicago’s Hyde Park, through downtown, the North Side and into north and far northwest suburban communities. Similar educational attainment figures are found in Chicago’s Beverly community as well as some west, south and southwest suburban areas.

Conversely, a swath of census tracts — where a majority of residents are without a four-year degree — stretches from suburbs just northwest of O’Hare Airport through Chicago’s Northwest, West, South and Southeast sides and extends into the south suburbs.

Unemployment tops more than 20% in some areas, and it’s less than 1% in others

Between the five-year periods ending in 2012 and 2022, unemployment rates declined in more than 80% of census tracts in Cook County — it was just under 80% of the areas in the city and nearly 84% in suburban Cook County.

However, staggering unemployment rates — ranging from 20% to nearly 48% — remain throughout Chicago’s South and West sides and in parts of the south suburbs. In all, 99 of Cook County’s more than 1,300 census tracts, roughly 7.4% of the county’s total, posted unemployment rates of 20% or more in the 2018-2022 data.

That’s the highest total of census tracts with such elevated unemployment levels of any U.S. county. Among large U.S. counties — those with 100 or more census tracts — only the counties of Flint, Detroit, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., and Memphis posted a higher share of census tracts with unemployment rates of 20% or more.

In some areas, more than 50% of families are in poverty or at risk of being in poverty, while less than 5% are in other areas

Roughly three out of every four Chicago census tracts witnessed declining shares of families in poverty or at risk of being in poverty between the five-year periods ending in 2012 and 2022. But more than one out of every three families remained in such economic peril in hundreds of census tracts throughout the city and suburban Cook County between 2018 and 2022.

Families are considered to be in poverty if their incomes are below the federal poverty line. They’re considered to be at risk of poverty if their incomes are at or above the poverty line but lower than double the poverty line.

In 2022, the federal poverty line was $13,590 for individuals. It was $18,310, $23,030 and $27,750 for families of two, three and four, respectively, according to a U.S. Department of Health & Human Services website.

Alden Loury is the data projects editor for WBEZ. Follow him at @AldenLoury.

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