Scaremongers have been honking at a fever pitch ever since the U.S. Census Bureau released data in March showing a second year of declining population for the Chicago area. “Depopulation is killing this city, and it’s all self-inflicted,” tweeted Dominic Lynch, a contributor to Chicagoly. Curbed Chicago posted an open thread asking readers to comment on whether they planned to bolt, too. And an op-ed in the Tribune by a guest columnist went so far as to suggest the city should annex inner-ring suburbs to boost its slumping tax base.
Meanwhile, politicians and advocates clamored to assign blame for the decline to pet causes. Governor Bruce Rauner excoriated Democrats, of course: Taxes are too high, schools are too crummy, and politicians serve for too long, he said through a spokesperson. The nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety attributed the drop to violence. Twitter user @jetdog asked: “Is this because President Trump says it’s a horrible place?”
Well, not so fast.
“It’s all overplayed,” says Rob Paral, a public policy analyst known as the Chicago Data Guy. “In a major city of 2.7 million people, the decline is really quite small. The sky is not falling.”
This much is true: The Chicago metro area lost 19,570 people in 2016, according to Census Bureau estimates—the largest drop of any metro area in the country. And yes, it’s the second straight year of decline.
But Paral reminds us that this is out of a whopping 9.5 million residents—a mere 0.2 percent dip. He calls the Chicago area a “huge chessboard” with pieces constantly moving on and off it.
So where the headlines imply a gush, analysts see a trickle. And as for the reasons behind the drop? They’re more complicated than the knee-jerk reactions suggest. “The tax argument is really a canard,” Paral says. “Kansas has slashed taxes, and they are losing population.” And while many armchair quarterbacks rushed to blame the exodus on last year’s surge in murders, it’s too soon for people to have picked up their lives in response to that.
Things get interesting—and alarming—when you look at who is leaving. “The white population is not falling, and the Latino and Asian populations are slightly growing,” says Paral. “The big factor that is altering Chicago’s population is the change among blacks.”
Since the early ’80s, blacks in South and West Side neighborhoods have been steadily leaving the city, resettling at first largely in the Cook County suburbs. But over the past 15 years, more and more have been leaving the area entirely for northwest Indiana, Iowa’s Quad Cities, and Sun Belt states, says Alden Loury, the director of research and evaluation at the Metropolitan Planning Council. Today there are roughly 850,000 blacks in Chicago, down from 1.2 million in 1980.
The reasons for this are varied: The foreclosure crisis saw blacks evicted disproportionately from their rental apartments and houses; the Chicago Housing Authority leveled high-rises like the Robert Taylor Homes, scattering public housing residents; the lack of stable employment in South and West Side neighborhoods continues to force residents to look elsewhere for jobs; and school closures further disenfranchise communities. “There are not a lot of messages that Chicago cares about its black residents,” says Mary Pattillo, a sociology and African American studies professor at Northwestern University and author of the book Black Picket Fences. “When you lose the institutions that cultivate attachment, it makes it a lot easier to pick up and leave.”
Quan Webster, 48, is among the more than 5,700 blacks who relocated from Cook County to Indiana between 2012 and 2014, the most recent period for which migration data is available. His motivation? The Englewood native, who had previously moved to south suburban Lynwood, could afford to build a new house in Merrillville while reducing his tax burden. (And he can still commute to Chicago for his job as a photojournalist at NBC-5.)
“I couldn’t have this size house in Illinois,” Webster says, adding that safety was another factor. (His brother was murdered in the city in the ’80s.) “The people here look out for their neighborhoods. Our kids weren’t hanging out at the liquor store doing stupid stuff. They were going to school or to practice. They aren’t hanging out on the corner. Ain’t no corners out here.”
That’s great for Webster and his family. But on a larger level, the migration of blacks out of the Chicago area is cause for concern. Quality of life often declines in neighborhoods and suburbs that struggle to maintain population, says Daniel Kay Hertz, an urban planning expert and senior policy analyst for the Chicago-based Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. “It can be harder to maintain commercial districts. It makes it really hard for property values to recover.”
And then there’s the social toll. Chicago may be a largely segregated city, but it has long prided itself on its diversity. As blacks take flight, Pattillo says, that shifts Chicago’s role nationally as a center of African American culture, one that gave rise to everything from the blues to the first black president. “It doesn’t mean there won’t be black creativity or black economic development,” she says. “It’s just going to happen somewhere else.”