Chicago has lost residents for the fourth year in a row, according to new population estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau Thursday.
The city shrank by about 7,000 people between 2017 and 2018, up slightly from the previous year, when the population fell by just under 6,000, according to the new estimates.
Chicago ranked third among U.S. cities that lost population in 2018 — behind New York City, which lost almost 40,000 residents, and Baltimore, which lost about 7,300.
Among other cities suffering the largest population losses were St. Louis, Cleveland, and Detroit — sometimes described as cities on the decline: losing population, experiencing financial woes, not attracting new residents.
Daniel Kay Hertz, research director at the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability (CTBA), said Chicago is unique among cities losing population in that it has a bigger tax base, especially downtown and surrounding areas.
“There’s a lot of economic activity happening in the urban core in a way that’s not true — or is certainly not at the same scale — in most of those other cities,” he said. “As much debt as we get ourselves into, as much mismanagement that we have of the budget, we have this base of economic activity that can sustain the city.”
At the same time, Hertz pointed out, that the population loss is almost entirely focused on black Chicagoans on the South and West sides. According to a WBEZ analysis of figures from the most recent American Community Survey (ACS), the neighborhoods that shrank the most since 2010 were Englewood, West Englewood, New City, South Lawndale and Austin — all low-income community areas that are either majority black or majority Latino.
“We are one of the cities that were the beneficiaries of the Great Migration of black southerners … in the 20th century,” Hertz said. “And those cities have a legacy of really severe segregation, oppression and disinvestment of the people who made that migration.”
He added that this dichotomy of reinvestment into the city’s center and disinvestment from its outlying neighborhoods is what makes Chicago’s population story unique.
“We have the fastest-growing downtown in the country, but also we have precipitous population declines in pockets of the South and West sides,” Hertz said. WBEZ’s analysis shows that the city’s fastest growing neighborhoods since 2010 were the Near North Side, the Near West Side and the Loop.
William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, said that cities have been losing black residents to the suburbs, and to southern states, for more than a decade.
“I was surprised to see how many cities showed declines in their black populations — it was fairly pervasive,” Frey said. “Some of it had to do with black suburbanization. Some of it could be because of gentrification and displacement.”
Frey said it’s not only black residents moving to the south and west, which are growing rapidly. According to the census estimates, Phoenix, San Antonio and Fort Worth were the top three cities experiencing population growth in 2018 — each increasing by about 20,000 to 25,000 residents. Frey said the growth in those Sun Belt cities is diverse: big Latino populations, young people looking to start families, baby boomers in retirement, and black residents leaving northern cities.
While some residents and pundits say high taxes are the reason why people move, Frey said taxes are of concern to wealthier populations. Hertz cited a CTBA analysis that showed that when residents with incomes of $100,000 or more leave Chicago, they head for New York City, San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles — all places with higher taxes.
“If you’re leaving Chicago for those places, you’re not leaving for tax reasons,” he said. “Migration experts say that people move for jobs, for climate, for family. And two of those — climate and economic opportunity — are both ones that Illinois is not doing great at.”
The state, Hertz added, is “in the middle of the pack … in terms of how many people leave per capita.”
“What we are really, really bad at is at attracting people from other states, and that’s what’s driving our migration problem,” he said, mentioning the national reputation of the city and state.
“People don’t necessarily want to go to a place where they feel like there’s a sense of chaos,” Hertz said. “Certainly, it can’t help that so much of the news out of Illinois and Chicago is about bad governance.”
Mayor Lori Lightfoot has called the city’s population loss “a canary in the mine shaft” and said that Chicago needs a “proactive growth strategy” to reverse the trend.
Hertz said public officials should focus on “bread and butter public services that people depend on … providing the best quality of life that they can to the people who are here. … That should eventually help.”
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter at @estheryjkang.