MacArthur Foundation, UIC report examines population shifts in Chicago, metro area

If residents vote with their feet, Chicago is losing. Since 2000, Chicago is the slowest growing major city in the U.S. Since its peak in 1950, Chicago has lost nearly 1 million residents.

Rather than a simple pattern of population “booms” and “busts,” groups have migrated to and away from Chicago at different points in time. These trends reflect changing conditions in Chicago that make the region more or less attractive to different groups.

A new John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation-commissioned report authored by researchers from the University of Illinois Chicago’s Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy takes a closer look at the patterns and reveals important differences in the characteristics of individuals leaving the city from those new to the region.

The report, “Shifting Population Trends in Chicago and the Chicago Metro Area,” documents the region’s demographic trajectory over the past century, identifying distinct periods of population growth and decline for the area’s three largest racial and ethnic groups. It also takes a detailed focus on recent shifts in the region’s demographic composition, highlighting the steady outflow of working-class residents and their replacement by a smaller number of white-collar workers.

While white residents moved to Chicago in the early 1900s, they later left the city in droves during the mid-20th century as the city became a focal destination for Black migrants relocating from the South. Chicago’s Black population peaked in 1980, around the time that the region’s Latinx population started to expand.

Much of Chicago’s recent population decline, however, is directly attributed to the loss of the region’s working-class residents and its shift toward a more white-collar population base, according to the report. The researchers also found this trend is true for Black, Latinx and white populations.

In addition to covering the past century of trends, the report also addresses contemporary challenges facing the region such as the emergence of new residential racial segregation patterns and disinvestment from the city’s South and West Sides.

“The consequence is that the city’s Black and Latinx residents are farther from the region’s economic center, which is increasingly in closer proximity to white residents,” the report states. “School closings and the shutting down of public housing developments occurred in communities that have experienced the greatest population loss in recent decades. In the absence of public investments to replace these neighborhood pillars, communities lost tens of thousands of residents.”

A breakdown of key findings includes:

Population shifts over the past century

  • Chicago’s three major racial/ethnic groups have had distinct, and often inversely correlated, population trajectories. White population growth was concentrated in the early 1900s, Black population growth in the mid-20th century and Latinx population growth occurred since 1980.
  • A growing number of Chicagoland residents live in the suburbs. In 1950, 37% resided in the suburbs. By 2020, over 70% are suburban residents, including half of the region’s Black population, 63% of the Latinx population and 82% of whites.

Current trends in Chicago’s demographic trajectory

  • Since 2012, those arriving in Chicago are more likely to be college-educated, work in managerial or professional occupations and have higher incomes than those who are leaving the region. These patterns are consistent across race and ethnicity.

New destinations, new opportunity?

  • Since 2012, residents leaving Chicagoland are commonly heading to metro areas in the U.S. South and Southwest.
  • Destinations for former Chicagoland residents differ by race. White movers are most likely to relocate to Phoenix, Black movers to Atlanta and Latinx movers to Houston.
  • Black residents leaving Chicago commonly relocate to places like Atlanta that have higher wages, better employment and lower poverty for Black residents.

Uneven loss, disparate growth: Population trends across Chicago communities

  • Since 1990, population loss in Chicago has been mostly concentrated in the city’s South and West Sides. However, the city’s Black population has declined in all regions of the city except the North Side, where it has stagnated.
  • White population growth has occurred alongside Black and Latinx population decline in many communities adjacent to downtown, such as the Near South Side, Near West Side and Lower West Side.
  • Black and Latinx population growth has occurred alongside white population loss in communities located near the city’s borders, such as West Ridge, Belmont Cragin and Ashburn.
  • The communities with the largest population loss are those where school and public housing developments have closed in recent decades.

“As policymakers and local leaders debate the future of the Chicago region, it is crucial that they consider inequality as a central issue shaping residents’ lives and influencing the region’s population trajectory,” the researchers write.

The Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy’s report for the MacArthur Foundation is authored by William Scarborough, assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Texas; with Amanda Lewis, director of IRRPP, UIC professor of Black studies and sociology, and distinguished professor of liberal arts and sciences; and Iván Arenas, IRRPP associate director for community partnerships.

“Shifting Population Trends in Chicago and the Chicago Metro Area” serves as an expansion of a 2020 IRRPP report that examined the dynamics impacting where Black Chicagoans live and why many are leaving the city.

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