Chicago loses—and gains—population

According to a report that the Census Bureau posted a couple of days ago, Chicago has been continuing to lose population. The city’s estimated population in 2016 was 2,704,958. In 2015 it had been 2,713,596. Chicago is the only city among the twenty largest in the United States to have lost population in the last year. If the Census Bureau’s estimates are correct, it’s actually lost population in each of the last three years. This does not seem like good news.

Actually, only some parts of Chicago have been losing population. While it won’t be possible to get tract-level population estimates until approximately December (and even then all that will be available are ACS data for 2012/2016), there is every reason to believe that the geography of population change over the last year has been roughly similar to that in recent years. That is to say, there have been substantial gains in high-prestige neighborhoods in the vicinity of the Loop where there are dozens of new apartment buildings (which have typically replaced industrial buildings or vacant lots). Many reasonably well-off areas on the North and Northwest Sides have been adding population too, again thanks largely to new construction. The areas of greatest loss have been poverty-stricken South and West Side African-American neighborhoods like Englewood and (part of) North Lawndale.

Here’s a map showing tract-level population changes, in percent, between 2010 and the 2011/2015 period:

The relationship in Chicago and vicinity between population gain or loss and the percentage of the population 25 and over with college degrees. Mapping at the tract level. GIS data from NHGIS.

The map also shows areas where more than half the population 25 and over had a college degree in 2011/2015.1 Note the rough relationship in the city (but not the suburbs) between population gain and high education levels. There is nearly as close a correlation between population gain and high per capita income. These correlations are all the more remarkable in that substantial population gain is likely to be associated with a densification of the housing stock, something that’s just not possible everywhere.

In other words, Chicago’s population loss is only part of the story. Much of prosperous central and North-Side Chicago has continued to gain population. It’s in Chicago’s most destitute neighborhoods where population loss has been most dramatic.

One of the major functions of cities historically has been to provide opportunities for poor people. The departure of so many poor people suggests that Chicago isn’t maintaining this traditional role in a very effective way these days. The utter failure of the Chicago Police Department to control violent crime in poor neighborhoods is only one of many factors causing people to flee. This failure is not something to celebrate.

But, in a city that has deep financial problems, the continued slow increase in the population of educated and in many cases well-off people clearly has some major advantages. There is no way that a city exclusively of the poor could help much with Chicago’s enormous pension obligations, for example. And it couldn’t do much to help the poor either.

  1. The ACS figures for 2011/2015 have large margins of error. The general patterns are likely to be reasonably accurate, however.
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