In the conclusion of its State of Black Chicago 2023 report, the Chicago Urban League tied the future of the city’s Black communities to the long-standing trend of declining Black population.
“As the Black population in Chicago declines, several serious issues emerge for the remaining Black residents,” the report warned.
Released this month, the report also highlighted persistent gaps in median household income, home ownership, hypertension rates and several other educational, economic and health indicators. To address the inequities and to counteract past injustices that continue to harm Black communities, the Chicago Urban League called for city leaders to adopt several forms of reparations — including cash payments and jobs programs.
In its conclusion, the report called attention to the city’s declining Black population and how Black Chicagoans were moving to the suburbs and other states in search of housing and employment, higher-performing schools and safer communities. The report warned of serious consequences if the depopulation persists.
“A mass exodus of people from our communities directly reduces the number of residents, students, earners and consumers in the local economy,” the report noted. “Local businesses experience reduced revenues, which limits their ability to hire as well as operate. This leads to closures, thus empty businesses, which further reduces incomes and property values in the areas.”
WBEZ took a deeper look at the areas in Chicago that have suffered the deepest declines in Black population. The WBEZ analysis shows the trajectories of some key indicators, over the past decade or so, have trended just as the Chicago Urban League described. Areas of the city with the deepest drops in Black population are witnessing far higher and growing rates of violence — and sharper declines in jobs and business activity compared to the rest of the city.
A legacy of losing population
Chicago has been losing Black residents for decades. The city’s Black population peak came in 1980, when it reached nearly 1.19 million people. Over the next 40 years, that figure declined by roughly 400,000, dipping to about 788,000 in 2020. That’s the lowest decennial census count of Black Chicagoans since 1950.
For its analysis, WBEZ tracked the decline of Black population, between 2000 and 2020, for more than 800 census tracts in the city. Overall, during that span, Chicago’s Black population declined by more than 265,000. The vast majority of that loss occurred in majority-Black communities on the city’s South and West sides.
WBEZ focused its analysis on roughly 220 census tracts that suffered the highest levels of Black population loss — each of those areas saw a drop in Black population of 500 people or more from 2000 to 2020. During that span, collectively, the Black population fell in those areas by more than 250,000 people. In the past two decades, those areas have also experienced far more violent crime, economic disinvestment and employment woes than the rest of the city — particularly among Black residents and workers.
More violence and disinvestment where Black population fell the most
Since 2010, nearly two-thirds of the people killed or wounded by gunfire in Chicago have been victimized in the census tracts that have suffered the heaviest losses of Black population over the past two decades.
Collectively, the rates of homicide and nonfatal shooting victims in those areas are more than five times higher than they are for the remainder of Chicago. And the rates of homicide and nonfatal shooting victims in those areas have increased over the past decade, even more so among African Americans.
These communities are also experiencing higher levels of economic disinvestment in the forms of job loss, diminishing business activity and sluggish development.
WBEZ analyzed the number of building permits issued for new construction and demolition in Chicago. We considered the ratio of new construction permits to demolition permits as a measure of development growth — more building than demolishing. That ratio is much lower in areas where the Black population has declined the most over the past two decades. Since 2010, there have been almost three times as many demolition permits issued than new construction permits in those areas. The picture is reversed for the remainder of the city where new construction permits have nearly doubled demolition permits since 2010.
Business activity — as measured by the number of business licenses issued by the city — has declined citywide since 2003, according to the WBEZ analysis. There were more than 66,000 active business licenses in Chicago in May 2003 compared to roughly 50,000 in May 2023, the analysis shows. However, the number of active business licenses has declined more sharply in census tracts with the deepest losses in Black population, almost 36%, than it has in the rest of the city, about 23%.
WBEZ analyzed worker data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau, from federal and state sources, to determine the number of jobs located in Chicago census tracts in 2012 and 2020. In the census tracts where the Black population has fallen the most, jobs declined by 1.3%, whereas in the remainder of Chicago, jobs increased by 2.4%.
However, when looking specifically at jobs held by Black workers, the gap widened. From 2012 to 2020, jobs held by Black workers fell by 6.7% in the census tracts with the deepest drops in Black population, but they rose by nearly 2.4% in the rest of the city, according to the WBEZ analysis.
The troubling outcomes of areas with the deepest losses in Black population are not shared by areas where the Black population declined at lower levels. Census tracts where the Black population declined by less than 500 people from 2000 to 2020 saw violent crime rates less than a third of those in areas where the Black population declined by 500 people or more. Areas with more moderate Black population loss also witnessed robust job growth — roughly 7% overall and nearly 14% among Black workers — a lower decline in business activity, and a new construction-to-demolition permit ratio three times higher than the one for areas with deeper losses in Black population.
Alden Loury is the data projects editor for WBEZ. Follow him at @AldenLoury.