Cook County Sees Country’s Largest Population Loss
Updated at 4:05 p.m.
Cook County lost more residents between 2017 and 2018 than any other county in the U.S., according to data released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.
After losing about 24,000 residents between 2017 and 2018, the county’s population dipped below 2010 levels for the first time this decade. Among the nation’s 10 most populous counties, Cook — which has been shrinking since 2015 — was the only one to see a net loss of residents since 2010.
“We are a Midwestern county, and we look like it,” said Chicago demographer Rob Paral. “We grew for a few years [from 2010 to 2105], and now we’re declining for a few years — it all averages out to a very Midwestern county with kind of an overall flat trajectory.”
The population in the Chicago metro area also fell for the fourth year in a row, losing about 22,000 residents. In both the metro area and county, the drop was a result of residents moving elsewhere. Between 2017 and 2018, the Chicago area lost 83,891 residents to other parts of the country or state, a number not offset by births, immigration, or people moving here.
This year, the Chicago area was joined by Los Angeles and New York City metro areas, which both lost residents in 2018 after consecutive years of growth. The Census Bureau’s estimates show the largest growth in metro areas was in the South and West, such as in the Dallas and Phoenix areas.
William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, said the trend is closely related to the economy. While residents generally stayed put during the recession and the few years thereafter, Frey has seen what he calls a “deconcentration” of the population away from large metro areas — particularly ones with higher costs of living.
“Jobs are more plentiful in the Sun Belt, homes are more available at affordable prices in different parts of the country,” he said.
The Dallas area welcomed more than 400,000 new residents since 2010; Phoenix saw more than 300,000. The Chicago area, in contrast, lost more than 560,000 residents who moved out of the region since 2010.
In past years, Chicago’s outmigration was offset by immigration from outside of the United States. But between 2017 and 2018, the area welcomed only about 25,000 immigrants, compared to the 38,000 international migrants who moved here in 2005.
“As this presidential administration and this Congress continue on the road it is with immigration, it’s not helping cities like Chicago or counties like Cook,” Paral said.
Between 2010 and 2018, the Chicago area grew by just 37,177 — just 0.4 percent since the last census. This is a much slower rate than other peer metro regions’ growth during that same period: New York City (2.1 percent), Los Angeles (3.6 percent), Houston (18.2), and Dallas (17.3). Both Houston and Dallas each grew by more than 1 million residents since 2010.
Aseal Tineh, a policy analyst for the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, said that the slow growth is cause for concern.
“If we continue to experience this overall long-term trend of stagnation, we would expect that to have significant implications for the region’s future, in particular for our regional economy,” she said.
Paral said that growth is important because “it means more consumers, more taxpayers, more dynamism, but we are not in any kind of crisis here.”
If city and county government leaders are concerned, he added, they are not demonstrating their urgency.
“Do we have a commission to look at how to retain people? Do we have any kind of government effort to look at why are blacks leaving Chicago, and why whites are leaving suburban Cook County?” Paral said. “Where is the government investment in saying, ‘Hey, what does it take to get people to reconsider their move?’ And before that, to even find out why are people leaving?”
Frey from the Brookings Institution says providing good schools for immigrants and job opportunities for newcomers from out of state are key elements to future population growth.
“It has a lot to do with the economy, the relative amount of opportunities and jobs and also the cost of living, all of that is a calculus,” Frey said. “There’s a lot to sell about the Chicago area, and I think that can be done.”
Cook County still ranks as the second most populous county in the nation, after Los Angeles County, but Harris County (Texas) and Maricopa County (Ariz.) are poised to surpass Cook in the coming years.
Other local counties, including DuPage and Lake, also lost population last year, although the DuPage has experienced significant growth since 2010. McHenry and Will counties made small gains in the last year. Illinois on the whole lost more than 90,000 residents since 2010, with more than half of that number leaving between 2017 and 2018.
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang. WBEZ's Alyssa Edes produced this story for broadcast. Follow her on Twitter @alyssaedes.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Aseal Tineh's place of work.