Last month, the Census Bureau released its most recent population estimates for population in metropolitan statistical areas and counties; the numbers for Cook County were pretty bad, with the largest raw population loss among counties. Other counties lost more by percentage, but it was still bad news.
Today the numbers were released at the city level, and the numbers for Chicago aren't any better. It lost population—2,890 people—from 2014 to 2015, the first time this decade that's happened. (From 2010 to 2011 the city grew by a mere seven people, but in the intervening years, population grew in the four figures year-over-year.) It was the only one of the 20 largest cities to lose population, one of three within the 30 largest, (Detroit lost 3,107, Memphis 712), and one of five in the 50 largest (Baltimore lost 1,812, Milwaukee 443).
"We were not surprised," says Liz Schuh, principal policy analyst at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. "The Cook County numbers that came out six weeks ago were negative, and that was likely going to build on a population decline in the city of Chicago. We've been tracking trends in the region for a few years now, and we've noticed a couple of negative trends regarding international immigration and birth rates that seem to be leading towards the decline." (I wrote about those trends last month.)
It's not a big loss—Detroit lost the most of any city, equivalent to less than one half of one percent of its population—but it pales in comparison to what Chicago considers its peer cities. New York added 55,000 people; Los Angeles, 55,000; Houston, 40,000; San Antonio, 30,000; Phoenix, 25,000. Even Philadelphia, not dissimilar to Chicago in many of its problems, added 6,000 people from 2014-2015. Of the nation's 20 largest cities besides Chicago, only Philadelphia and Indianapolis added fewer than 10,000 people.
CMAP broke it down in different ways, but the results are no better. It chose New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia as its "peer" metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs). From 2010 through 2015, Chicago had the slowest growth in its core city, its core county, and its collar counties. Their core cities grew from 2.6 percent to 7.5 percent; Chicago's grew by 0.8 percent. Chicago fares poorly by virtually every measure—about the best you can say is that the slow, one-percent growth over that period in the collar counties is not that far behind similar slow collar-county growth in Philadelphia and New York.
But issues of population decline are hardly limited to Chicago; it's a problem shared by most of the state's medium-sized and small cities. The entire Chicago MSA as a whole—a vast stretch that includes parts of Wisconsin and Indiana—lost population from 2014-2015, the only one of its peer MSAs to do so. This latest Census release covers 758 American cities with a population of 50,000 or more, and Illinois cities account for eleven of the top 50 cities by percentage of population lost from 2014-2015—including Skokie and Hoffman Estates.
Population change, 2014-2015
|City||2015 population||Change, 2014-2015||% Change, 2014-2015|
"You see in many older urbanized regions like ours, a loss of population even in the collar counties. That had not historically been the story in our region," Schuh says. "The counties within the region, but outside of Cook, tended to gain people from the rest of the country and from Cook County, so they increased domestically. What we're seeing in the last five years or so is population lost to other parts of the country in those counties. Which is not different from our peers, but it is different for us. When you add up all these changes, you're adding up to stagnant, or negative, population change."
The highest-ranked city in Illinois, by raw and percentage population growth? Champaign, which added 1,291 people, the equivalent of 1.5 percent of its population, good for 211th highest growth rate in the country. Champaign also leads the state in percentage population growth from 2010-2015; statewide, the longer trends are less grim, but it's still part of a piece. "I don't think [the latest Census report] changes the analysis, but it might lend urgency to things we're already pointing to," Schuh says."
Population change, 2010-2015
|City||2015 population||Change, 2010-2015||% Change, 2010-2015|
The problem extends well beyond Chicago's borders as well. Only one Midwestern city ranked in the top 50 for raw population growth from 2014-2015—Columbus, Ohio, like Champaign the home to a flagship university. As Yonah Freemark points out, the hardest-hit cities from 2010-2015 were concentrated in the Rust Belt.
Thriving cities are clustered on the coasts and in the Sun Belt, and the eyes of Chicago are specifically on Houston. Freemark estimates that, at current trends, it will pass Chicago in population by 2029, though he also notes that annexation makes it an apples-to-oranges comparison. Houstonians are also expecting slowing growth due to the crash in oil prices. From 2012-2014, the city added 90,000 to 120,000 jobs per year, or three to four percent growth; in 2015, it was 15,000, or 0.6 percent.
Chicago, however, might see some modest good news in the future.
"We've definitely seen a slower recovery in terms of unemployment compared to other regions. I think the data on other metrics is more mixed—median income, we're on par with some and not with others," Schuh says. "We are seeing some recent, more positive signs. Increased activity as far as patents are concerned, as far as exports are concerned. That's really over the last year or so. That's leading to increases in employment, in people coming here for economic opportunity. It wouldn't quite be reflected in these numbers."