Declining populations in the New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago regions

The biggest metropolitan areas in the United States are losing residents:

Source: William H. Frey

And what is behind this?

Each of these Chicago phenomena—declining immigration, revitalized downtowns coinciding with a middle-class exodus, and the specific decline of the black population—has spread from the heartland to America’s largest coastal metros…

First, immigration to both New York and Los Angeles has declined by 30 percent in the last five years. This could be for a variety of reasons, including the fear, and reality, of more restrictive immigration policies; richer and safer home countries; and a less affordable housing stock in these metros.

Second, higher-income residents bidding up the price of housing in both cities has accelerated the middle-class exodus. Earlier this decade, Los Angeles was the fastest growing county in all of southern California. But in 2018, it was the only major county in the region to shrink, even as its median home price set a new record. As more middle-class families leave the Los Angeles area for cheaper markets in the West and Southwest—their preferred destinations: Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Dallas—California’s population growth has slowed to its lowest rate in state history. This might have something to do with the recent tax law, which, in capping the state and local deductions, effectively raised the cost of living in these places for the upper-middle class. (The next few years will tell us more about whether high earners are fleeing high-tax metros for the South, as well.)

Third, the black population of both New York and Los Angeles peaked in the early 2000s and has since been in steady, and perhaps accelerating, decline. The political implications of the first Great Migration were immense, as blacks moving into northern cities forged an alliance with urban liberals and pushed the Democratic Party to prioritize civil rights in the middle of the 20th century. The political implications of the Reverse Great Migration could be equally ground-shaking, if blacks moving south redraw the political map for the second time in 100 years. The slow decline of America’s largest metros may also mark the beginning of a new political movement in the suburbs of the South and Southwest.

When it was just Chicago losing residents, it was easier to write it off as inevitable Rust Belt decline combined with particular issues that have dogged the city and region for decades. But, if New York and Los Angeles are also losing people, then this becomes more interesting as even the glitzy coastal cities are losing people to other parts of the United States and there are fewer new residents via immigration.

Is there evidence then that cities are losing steam compared to suburban areas? Not necessarily; Sun Belt cities are growing in population. At the same time the three biggest cities draw outsized attention in the United States (consider the relative anonymity of Houston which is approaching Chicago for third in population). Americans generally do not like what declining populations connote and particularly not in their largest locales.

Ultimately, the actual population figures which could fluctuate slightly from year to year might matter less than the perception that the biggest cities are floundering. Would they then put into place big plans to try to attract residents? Would second tier cities step up their efforts to toot their own (growing) horns?

Final note: Chicago’s long-standing quest to put itself in the same company as New York City might be looking up if both cities are losing residents.

Can American residents and leaders be convinced population stagnation or loss is not that bad?

Chicago continues to lose residents and Houston is coming up fast. A sociologist is cited as saying the population decrease is not that bad:

Christine Percheski, an associate professor of sociology at Northwestern University, cautioned that while it is significant to note that Chicago is losing people, “this does not necessarily reflect the health or the functioning of the city.”

An array of complicated factors are at play in population numbers, including changes to mortality, fertility and immigration rates, she noted.

I believe Percheski is right: the relatively small population loss in Chicago plus the city’s ability to avoid the larger population losses experienced by many Rust Belt cities means this is not a huge deal. Of course, getting passed by Houston in population will matter (though Toronto passing Chicago barely registered).

But, will residents and leaders ever be convinced that a lack of growth is not bad? Because growth is good and this argument is rarely challenged, population stagnation or loss set off an alarm bell. Why exactly this is the case is a bit harder to articulate but it likely involves a loss of status and a suggestion that the city has limited momentum heading into the future.

At this point, the United States does not have good models of cities and communities that have stalled out in population or even declined that are widely regarded as successful places. Chicago could be one of these models and perhaps it could work because it is so big and so storied. On the other hand, if Chicago has small population loss for decades, this adds up and will require Chicago leaders to work harder and harder to convince residents and businesses that the long-term story is not bad.

The legacy of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago as a global city

After weighing the highs and lows of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel’s eight years in office, a Chicago Tribune editorial ends with this:

Because in the end, Mayor Emanuel kept his word. He pushed Chicago to keep moving, to shuffle forward, to improve its rank as a global city.

Not many big-city mayors can say that.

Two quick thoughts on how this conclusion feeds ongoing narratives about cities and Chicago:

  1. “Keep moving” and “improve” are linked to the idea of continuous city growth. Chicago may be slowly losing residents – or at least losing ground to faster-growing cities close in population like Toronto and Houston – but Emanuel helped stem the tide. Imagine this legacy: Mayor Emanuel could not increase Chicago’s population but think how much worse it would have been without all those new buildings downtown and in wealthy neighborhoods!
  2. Emanuel himself had a goal of keeping Chicago as a major global city. Indeed, it is. But, Chicago also has a lingering fear that it is not considered a global city, particularly compared to places like New York City. The population loss is likely part of this but so may be a location in the Midwest away from the exciting coasts. Again, for Emanuel’s long-term legacy: Chicago stayed in the top 50 of global cities!

Finally, all of this conversation makes it sound as if the mayor was the only one with influence in the city. The mayor of Chicago may always have an outsized influence – I’m reminded of former mayor Richard M. Daley’s visit to campus in 2011. This big man theory of history covers up a lot of other processes, including the work (or rubber-stamping?) of the City Council, the flow of global capital into Chicago, the influence of developers and wealthy business leaders, and numerous changes taking place within disadvantaged neighborhoods.

The Chicago area’s net migration is not bad but it can’t attract new residents

The newest Census data suggests both Chicago and the Chicago region are losing residents. But, it may be less about people moving away and more about an inability to attract new residents:

ChicagoAreaPopulationChange2019

Some experts note the metro region also isn’t attracting enough newcomers to make up for people who move away. Immigration from other countries also has long helped stem population loss, but in recent years this influx has been less robust, according to census estimates. Meanwhile, birthrates are slowing statewide, which means there are fewer new residents to make up for other losses…

“We don’t have a particularly high rate of just out-migration, but very few people come here relative to our population, compared to the rest of the country,” said Daniel Kay Hertz, research director at the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

Using numbers from the 2015 American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. census, his agency found that Illinois ranked in the middle of the pack nationally on the rate of people leaving the state, but was third from the bottom on the rate of people coming in…

“The narratives around the state matter and can shape people’s decisions,” Hertz said. “And the ones in Illinois are really, really, really negative in ways that I think overstate some of the issues relative to other places.”

Any major metropolitan area is going to have some people moving out as they get new job opportunities, see greener pastures elsewhere, move for family reasons, and so on. The goal then is to also attract new residents even as some are moving out. Population increases come from new residents plus more births than deaths.

This one expert cited above hints at an interesting conundrum for any city or region beset with population loss or narratives of decline: how do you reverse the trend once it starts picking up steam? As noted, the narratives both within and outside the Chicago region and Illinois are not good: pension debts, inequality, corruption, social issues that have lasted decades, higher taxes, a lack of innovation, not a business-friendly climate, harsh winters, important but bottlenecked infrastructure. If Chicago was the exemplar American city at the turn of the twentieth century, that is no longer the case. Other cities are on the rise, particularly in the Sunbelt stretching from Washington D.C. (with the expansion of and attention paid to the federal government, perhaps now truly the second most important American city) to Houston (whose population keeps growing and may soon surpass Chicago).

It is hard to know exactly how much the larger narrative pushes people to avoid the Chicago area in favor of other places. At the same time, status matters. People and businesses want to go to places that are on the way up, that are gaining people, that have an energy moving toward the future. Chicago and its region still have a lot to offer. For example, millennials still like portions of Chicago for their thriving cultural scenes plus relatively cheap housing compared to other major cities. Perhaps Chicago’s long-term fate is to roughly stay the same at the center of the Midwest region, a significant portion of the country that may also be losing population and status.

Chicago neighborhoods lead the way in percentage and absolute numbers of millennials

Chicago continues to be a draw for young adults:

According to U.S. Census population estimates, 73 percent of West Loop residents (6,800 people) are millennials. California-based apartment search website RENTCafe.com analyzed the data, ranking ZIP codes in the country’s 30 largest U.S. cities. And the West Loop — ZIP code 60661 — is home to a higher percentage of people born between 1977 and 1996 than any other in the country, according to their analysis.

But the trendy downtown-adjacent neighborhood doesn’t come close to several other Chicago areas in terms of sheer numbers. Lakeview, Logan Square, Irving Park, Lincoln Park, Chicago Lawn, Pilsen and Lincoln Square — each home to more than 30,000 millennials — all rank among the top 20 ZIP codes in the nation with the largest millennial population, according to RENTCafe.

While the emphasis in the rest of the article is on the excitement in such neighborhoods, I want to hold the data up to two larger trends.

These figures may suggest Chicago continues to draw young adults from throughout the Midwest. From an area roughly from Detroit to Omaha, Minneapolis to St. Louis, Chicago pulls in a lot of residents to the leading city in the middle of the country. This is happening even as the US population continues to shift to the South and West.

Furthermore, these high percentages of millennials may seem out of place considering Chicago’s population loss in recent years. On one hand, the city as a whole is struggling to retain residents. On the other hand, a good number of millennials want to move to and live in Chicago. The long-term trick may be for the city to figure how to keep these millennials in the city even as millennials on the whole might prefer the suburbs later in life.

Even with all of its issues, Chicago is still a desirable place to live, particularly for millennials. These neighborhoods with younger adults could prove very important to helping the city retain its status as a leading global city.

Why doesn’t everyone leave Chicago or Illinois?

With the recent news of Chicago’s continuing population decline as well as population loss in some suburbs, some critics have suggested this all makes sense with the problems facing Chicago and the state of Illinois. The argument goes like this: when social, economic, and political conditions are bad, people vote with their feet and leave. Look at all the people moving to Texas and the Sun Belt!

However, there are multiple reasons people stay in Chicago and Illinois. Among them:

  1. It is costly financially to move. It takes time and money to move to a new location. Having a good job on the other hand is needed.
  2. It is costly socially to move. Finding new friends and social connections can be difficult, particularly in today’s society where Americans tend to stick to themselves.
  3. They have a good job in Illinois or Chicago. There are still plenty of good jobs here; Chicago is the #7 global city after all and there are lots of headquarters, major offices, and research facilities alongside large service and retail sectors.
  4. They have families or ties to the area. The Chicago region is the third biggest in the country – over 9 million residents – and there are lots of residents with long histories and/or many connections.
  5. Both places have a lot of amenities. One of the busiest airports in the world? Impressive skyline? Access to Lake Michigan? Good farmland? Located in the center geographically and socially in the United States? Land of Lincoln?

All that said, for the vast majority of Chicago and Illinois resident, there are not enough negatives outweighing the positives of staying. (This is not the same as saying current residents are happy or wouldn’t prefer to live somewhere else.) Compared to other American locations which are growing more quickly, it doesn’t look good but Chicago and Illinois also aren’t emptying out like American major cities did in the postwar era or some rural areas.

60+ Chicago suburbs lose population in recent years

Population loss may not just be limited to Chicago; dozens of Chicago area suburbs have lost population in the last few years.

From 2010 to 2014, Chicago and 73 of the suburbs saw their populations increase.

But the trend reversed from 2014 to 2016. In that time, Chicago and 61 suburbs saw their populations shrink…

Decreases were sharpest in the Cook County suburbs closest to the Chicago. Towns including Rosemont, Des Plaines, Elk Grove Village, Mount Prospect and even Hoffman Estates experienced declines of a full percent or more during the past two years…

But now, both the city and its suburbs are losing population, which is troubling to researchers. “That’s not really typical for us,” said Elizabeth Schuh, principal policy analyst at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. “Many regions often tend to lose from the central city as residents migrate to the suburbs. When you’re losing from both is when you see regional decline.”

From the maps, it is not as simple as closer suburbs are losing population and further suburbs are gaining residents. Instead, there seem to be pockets of suburban growth: the far west suburbs, two southwest corridors (though not Joliet), and some communities in eastern DuPage County and southern Lake County. Are these just communities that have had new development or are there particular features of these growing suburbs that are attracting residents (like access to trains or a high quality of life or a mix of housing options)?

The suggestion from the article that this is a regional issue could lead to some fruitful discussions: how does the third largest region in the country work together to attract more residents and businesses? It is easy to cast this as a problem with just Chicago but the city and suburbs are intertwined. A regional approach where multiple parties can win – and not just fight over businesses or residents moving from the suburbs to the city or vice versa – could be the better way to go.