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.

More important than actual figures: Chicago’s population loss compared to others

Last year, I argued Chicago’s slight population loss was just an estimate. This year, it might be worthwhile to focus less on how many people Chicago actually lost – 8,638 – and instead discuss why it is the only major city that lost population:

Chicago was the only city among the nation’s 20 largest to lose population in 2016 — and it lost nearly double the number of residents as the year before, according to newly released data from the U.S. Census Bureau…

While the major cities in those states continue to grow, they aren’t growing as rapidly as they have in recent years. Houston, which saw the second-largest increase among major cities in 2015, when it gained 40,817 residents, gained 18,666 residents in 2016…

Even New York didn’t see as much growth in 2016 as it had in previous years. It grew by 21,171 people, compared with 44,512 people in 2015 and 49,530 in 2014.

“The big city growth we saw at the beginning of the decade is not quite as evident in the last couple years,” said William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution who analyzes census data.

Two trends are discussed here: (1) Chicago is slowly losing population – this has been happening since the early 2010s – and (2) big cities overall didn’t grow as much during this past year. Both are important to note, even if these are just year to year estimates. A third ongoing trend complicates the story even more: the majority of the fastest-growing cities were in the South and West and communities in those regions had higher rates of population growth. In this broader context, it isn’t that strange that Chicago is losing people given its history and location (Rust Belt city, numerous ongoing issues) plus ongoing broader population shifts to the Sun Belt plus a slowdown in urban growth across the country.

For those who care about these figures, the bigger issue is that this does appear to be a trend over this decade: Chicago is slowly losing residents. The article notes several reasons including a loss of black residents and a slowing of immigration from Mexico. Apparently, even with all those luxury buildings going up downtown, there are not enough white suburbanites or millennials moving in.

While all other major cities grow, Chicago loses population

According to the latest Census figures, Chicago continues to be an outlier among the largest US cities:

Of the country’s 10 largest cities, the Chicago metropolitan statistical area was the only one to drop in population between 2015 and 2016. The region, defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, includes the city and suburbs and extends into Wisconsin and Indiana.

The Chicago metropolitan area as a whole lost 19,570 residents in 2016, registering the greatest loss of any metropolitan area in the country. It’s the area’s second consecutive year of population loss: In 2015, the region saw its first decline since at least 1990, losing 11,324 people.

By most estimates, the Chicago area’s population will continue to decline in the coming years. Over the past year, the Tribune surveyed dozens of former residents who’ve packed up in recent years and they cited a variety of reasons: high taxes, the state budget stalemate, crime, the unemployment rate and weather. Census data released Thursday suggests the root of the problem is in the city of Chicago and Cook County: The county in 2016 had the largest loss of any county nationwide, losing 21,324 residents…

While Chicago suffered the largest population loss of any metropolitan area, the greatest metropolitan population gains were in Texas and Arizona. The Dallas-Fort Worth- Arlington, Texas, metropolitan area gained more than 143,000 residents in 2016, and the Houston region gained about 125,000. The Phoenix area gained about 94,000 residents and the Atlanta region gained about 91,000 people.

The ascendance of the Sunbelt continues. While this demographic shift has been in the works for decades, at what point can we declare that America is a Sunbelt nation? Granted, there is still significant power in other parts of the country – for example, New York, Chicago, Ohio, Pennsylvania – but the swath of America from Virginia to southern California both covers a lot of residents and has an increasing amount of influence.

The potential decline of mature, wealthier suburbs

If you are not growing, you are falling behind. Does the principle apply to older suburbs? See the case of several New England suburbs:

This has little to do with the housing market broadly speaking: In cities like New York, San Francisco, and Boston, prices are rising and homes are sold within days of listing. Rather, it’s a sign that suburban neighborhoods straight out of Mad Men are no longer as in-demand as they once were. Around Boston, for example, 51 towns and suburbs started the year with price declines while the city’s prices skyrocketed. Indeed, as Blackwood drives me through this picturesque New England town just an hour from New York, we pass dozens of for-sale and for-rent signs outside home set back from the road. These are homes that, one day, might have been on any family’s dream list, back when suburbs were where everyone wanted to live and there were dozens of companies to work for nearby. Median home values in Fairfield County, where New Canaan is located, are down 21 percent from their peak in 2003, according to Zillow; for the state as a whole median home values are down 18 percent from their 2004 peak. By contrast, home values nationwide are down just 5 percent from their 2005 peak. In urban areas, they are up—often substantially; in Boston, Charlotte, Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle, prices this year have set record highs.

Cities are in vogue again, and that’s starting to be a problem for places that are made up mostly of suburbs. Companies like General Electric that were once headquartered here in the suburbs are decamping for city centers, where they say they can more easily find the talent they need. In 2010, Aetna abandoned a giant campus in Middletown, Connecticut; Pfizer recently tore down 750,000 square feet of unused laboratory space in nearby Groton. At the same time, the baby boomers who flooded the suburbs to raise their children are getting older and no longer need big homes, but their children’s generation doesn’t have the desire—nevermind the savings—to buy up the houses, at least not at the prices boomers are looking for.

The Northeast has long been growing more slowly than other, warmer, parts of the country. Now, parts of the region are starting to see net losses in population. Between 2014 and 2015, Connecticut lost nearly 4,000 residents as Florida, a retirement hub, added 366,000. During that same period, the Northeast and Midwest together lost half a million people to the South and West. “Where the real action is is the Sun Belt,” William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institute, told me.

The losses are exacerbated by the fact that the region’s median age is growing. Connecticut, alongside New England neighbors Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, is one of only a few states to have a median age over 40, which means half of its population is over child-bearing age, according to Peter Francese, a New Hampshire-based demographer. “Connecticut is a basketcase demographically, as are many of the states in New England,” Francese told me.

Several thoughts:

  1. As the article notes, there is both inter-regional competition for residents and businesses as well as intra-regional competition. It would be interesting to know whether these communities have seriously considered changes to attract new people. Of course, doing so might mean altered demographics or character.
  2. The problems here are partly regional but also common across American suburbs. What do communities do when (1) they run out of new greenfield space and (2) stop growing? This stage of development might require large decisions to be made because of a default of not changing much could lead to additional issues – see #3.
  3. I would also add that these suburbs are also competing with other nearby suburbs in addition to cities. There are plenty of suburbs trying denser housing or more cultural events or affordable housing that might just attract some of those residents who are leaving or city residents who want the suburban life.
  4. It would be fascinating to compare suburbs at this mature stage – limited land to develop, aging populations and an older housing stock, population plateau or decline – that differ on social class. The suburbs profiled here are wealthy and it could take some time before outsiders could truly point to noticeable decline. In contrast, suburbs with fewer resources could more quickly decline. And once the “decline” starts, what can stem the tide or reverse it?

Describing Detroit at its peak

In discussing Detroit’s decline, it is good to be reminded of the city’s peak:

As Maraniss’s book opens, Detroit appears to be a city on the verge of unimagined greatness. President John F. Kennedy campaigns in the Motor City in October 1962 in support of the off-year elections. Democrat Jerry Cavanaugh is mayor of the city, then the fifth largest in the country with a population of nearly 1.7 million. Cavanaugh is the mayoral version of JFK, a relatively young man with a big Catholic family, liberal, civil rights minded. George Romney is elected governor, a Republican who also champions civil rights. Vice President Lyndon Johnson visits the city in early 1963 in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Motown, now well established, is conquering the Billboard charts. Mary Wells’ “My Guy” dislodges the Beatles from the number one spot in March of 1964. Following the best sales year in its history, Ford introduces the Mustang in the spring of ’64. The United Automobile Workers, under the leadership of Walter Reuther, has won an unprecedented standard of living for its members, setting the bar for workers across the country and building the foundation for the Affluent Society. Martin Luther King delivers the first version of his “I Have a Dream” speech to a Detroit crowd of 100,000 two months before the March on Washington in August 1963. The city nearly wins the bid for the 1968 Summer Olympics.

Of course, this is what helps make the Detroit case so interesting: the city was so large, so influential, so promising, and then the bottom dropped out over the next fifty years. Humans often make the mistake of romanticizing some sort of golden age where problems were few and life was good, but in this case there really does seem to have been a better era.

Chicago’s loss of nearly 3,000 residents in 2015 is an estimate

Chicago media were all over the story this week that Chicago was the only major American city to lose residents in 2015. The Chicago Tribune summed it up this way:

This city has distinguished itself as the only one among the nation’s 20 largest to actually lose population in the 12-month stretch that ended June 30.

Almost 3,000 fewer people live here compared with a year earlier, according to new figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, while there’s been a decline of more than 6,000 residents across the larger metropolitan area.

Chicago’s decline is a mere 0.1 percent, which is practically flat. But cities are like corporations in that even slow growth wins more investor confidence than no growth, and losses are no good at all.

The last paragraph cited above is a good one; 3,000 people either way is not very many and this is all about perceptions.

But, there is a larger issue at stake. These population figures are estimates. Estimates. They are not exact. In other words, the Census Bureau doesn’t measure every person moving in or leaving for good. They do the best the can with the data they have to work with.

For example, on May 19 the Census released the list of the fastest growing cities in America. Here is what they say about the population figures:

To produce population estimates for cities and towns, the Census Bureau first generates county population estimates using a component of population change method, which updates the latest census population using data on births, deaths, and domestic and international migration. This yields a county-level total of the population living in households. Next, updated housing unit estimates and rates of overall occupancy are used to distribute county household population into geographic areas within the county. Then, estimates of the population living in group quarters, such as college dormitories and prisons, are added to create estimates of the total resident population.

If you want to read the methodology behind producing the 2015 city population figures, read the two page document here.

So why doesn’t the Census and the media report the margin of error? What exactly is the margin of error? For a city of Chicago’s size – just over 2.7 million – couldn’t a loss of 3,000 residents actually be a small gain in population or a loss double the size? New York’s gain of 55,000 people in 2015 seems pretty sure to be positive regardless of the margin of error. But, small declines – as published here in USA Today – seem a bit misleading:

I know the media and others want hard numbers to work with but it should be made clear that these are the best estimates we can come up with and they may not be exact. I trust the Census Bureau is doing all it can to make such projections – but they are not perfect.