Chicago lost 2,890 people last year and I was one of them—Here's why

Chicago lost 2,890 people last year and I was one of them—Here's why

By Chrissy Mancini Nichols

July 29, 2016

I’m officially one of the statistics I often write about—over the past few years I’ve analyzed why Chicago is losing population.  Well now I can give you a first hand account because after a decade of living in the Windy City, I’ve left too. 

First, let’s look at the data.  Of the top 20 most populous cities, Chicago was the only to lose people last year—almost 3,000.  Western and southern cities continue to grow but so does Columbus, Ohio, Philadelphia, Indianapolis and New York City (including me.) 

The Midwest data shows a split, with older, rustbelt cities continuing to lose population while Kansas City, Indianapolis and Minneapolis, cities less dependent on manufacturing, are growing.

Why is Chicago losing population?  Well data tells us some of the story.

First, Cook County is old.  The population is aging and the birth rate doesn’t keep up with the death rate.  So natural population growth is stymied. Combine that with high out migration — people leaving for other places — and you have overall population loss. 

Another reason—families.  A look at household data shows Chicago’s growth is mostly singles or people living together without children.  Of the top 20 metros, the Chicago region had the lowest percent of family household growth. Take a look at a Nashville/Chicago comparison on why that matters. From 2009 to 2014 Chicago grew by the same number of households as Nashville—about 17,000—but Nashville’s population grew by 41,000 people compared to Chicago’s 23,000 people—roughly double.

Why? The makeup of those households was significantly different. Chicago’s 17,000 households were almost all—96 percent—non-family households: singles or people living together that are not related or not married. Meanwhile, Nashville’s 17,000 households were majority family households. So Chicago brought in smaller households; likely singles are moving to the city or larger families move out and are replaced by a single person or a non-married couple with no children. While in Nashville, household growth is families, likely with children—and that means more people per household and more citywide population growth. 

Analysis of U.S. Census data,

Analysis of U.S. Census data,

Cost of living could also play a factor—it's cheaper to live in the south and west while at the same time, growing cities in those parts of the country such as Nashville and Houston have median wages that are about the same as Chicago—and more job growth.

So why did I leave?

Technically due to employment—my husband and I relocated due to his job.

Was it difficult to leave Chicago?  Of course.  We love Chicago, it’s a fun, exciting and interesting place to live and has been good to us both personally and professionally.   Chicago is a true city with diversity, culture and history.  It’s dense and easy to get around, with a reliable bus and train system (plus arrival time trackers and electronic boarding—I’m looking at you NYC) and pretty good bike infrastructure. It is a fact that Chicago’s restaurant scene is one of the best in the country. There’s also world class museums, sports teams that win, (finally!) a beautiful lakefront and now riverfront, an unmatched skyline, a robust philanthropic community, top universities and lots of everyday stuff to do from lectures to cake decorating classes to volunteering. 

So yes, Chicago is a fantastic city. So why leave?  Like I said, it was technically job related but in reality we've been planning on leaving Chicago for some time, we simply want new experiences.  

The winning Chicago Blackhawks have been great for the city and bring in tax revenue.

The winning Chicago Blackhawks have been great for the city and bring in tax revenue.

After studying Chicago's population loss I've learned that, like any city, some people just want to move. There's no putting the breaks on that loss.    But I've also learned, aside from wanting a lifestyle change and employment, there are a few other reasons people leave Chicago.  

State and city finances.  Chicago is billions in debt, Illinois is billions more in debt.  This is crippling growth because all of this debt means less money for services, infrastructure, schools, you name it.  There are a few obstacles to fixing the budget mess—the last state income tax increase wasn’t comprehensive enough to pay the old debts and it was temporary. Also pensions—workers were made promises that politicians, many who are long gone, simply can’t keep—and now the state owes $111 billion, a number that grows by the day. Whether the reason for the pension debt is because Illinois skipped pension payments that are now owed with interest or gave too generous benefits doesn’t matter—leaders need to fix it.  Without comprehensive, lasting changes to the entire tax system as well pension reform that will pass constitutional muster—like the long standing proposal to reamoritize the debt or Illinois Senate President Cullerton’s plan to offer a choice on cost of living increases—Illinois will not move forward.  

As a result of the Illinois state budget mess Northeastern Illinois University estimates it lost about twice as many employees as usual in the past year. University President Sharon Hahs:
“You have a lack of stability...You have the message that Illinois does not value public higher education, and doesn’t see its future in educating its citizenry."

Springfield failing to pass a budget for almost two years had serious consequences. Non-profit social services were hamstrung, unable to provide services to the neediest citizens, people lost their jobs because the state didn't appropriate funding and universities bond ratings were downgraded adding millions to their interest costs.  The state's universities also had to eliminate teacher jobs and put off offering graduate scholarships  and now are seeing enrollment numbers dropping, with students choosing schools at neighboring states. 

In Chicago 35 cents of every budget dollar goes to pay debt and pensions. According to Moody's Chicago's debt (including pension debt) is 9.4 times the city's operating revenue, the U.S. city average is 2.4.  That means New York City, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Nashville, the list goes on—they’re able to invest in big infrastructure programs, community development projects and services, affordable housing and schools, while Chicago is paying off debt.  

The city is taking steps to get on track. Increasing property taxes to shore up police, fire and teacher pension funds was a difficult political decision but the reality is that compared nationally and to the suburbs, Chicago's property taxes are low and hadn’t been raised in over a decade. Further, Chicago, more than most places, relies on property taxes to fund public services—the state prohibits it from implementing a local income tax, so the property tax increase it was an important step. Clearly it was a step in the right direction—as a result of cuts, pension reform and new revenue, the budget gap has gone from $635 million in 2011 (Mayor Emanuel's first year) to $137 million. 

There are some non tax or pension related solutions for Chicago.  For example, the City has ended up owing Chicago Parking Meters (the private entity that operates the parking meter system) millions every year since the meters were privatized.   I did an analysis after the 2013 renegoation of the meter deal and by implementing a few measures, the City could reverse that trend and actually generate revenue within the parking meter system.


While I don’t have kids of my own (do dogs count!)  I worked for many years to fix Illinois antiquated school funding system as well as implement policy reforms in Chicago Public Schools and was a seventh grade teacher, so I do have experience in the matter.  One of the biggest challenges Chicago parents face is navigating the high school enrollment process. There’s tons of pressure on the student to pass a test to get into a selective enrollment school (Walter Payton, Lane Tech) and this pressure and uncertainty causes many families to consider leaving for the suburbs. 

The Grow Community initiative resulted in a multimillion dollar investment in LakeView High School and as a result its rating increased to Level I. 

The Grow Community initiative resulted in a multimillion dollar investment in LakeView High School and as a result its rating increased to Level I. 

Alderman Pawer's GROW Community initiative works to create better high schools in the 47th ward so parents and students feel they have options besides selective enrollment schools and don’t feel the need to leave the city to access a better education. Composed of parents, teachers, community leaders and now including the 40th and 44th wards, the GROW Community initiative raises money and prioritizes funding, including Tax Increment Finance (TIF) funding to schools facing the most challenges—tens of millions has already been invested.  The aldermen are also exploring the creation of a school impact fee on new development similar to ones that generate funds for infrastructure.  

I also like former head of Chicago Public Schools and U.S. Sec. of Education Arne Duncan's idea that teachers in low-income schools should be paid much more.

“This is about folks thinking very, very differently,” he said. “But teaching in Englewood, teaching in North Lawndale, that is a fundamentally different job than teaching at Walter Payton or Whitney Young. What if we made it a badge of honor to work in poor communities?”  Duncan said this would bring high quality teachers to the schools that need them the most and might encourage middle-class families to send their children to these schools reducing inequality in education and neighborhoods.  


I wasn't going to discuss crime because Chicago's crime problem and ways to solve it require a deeper discussion than a paragraph.  But I was just asked by someone in New York if I left Chicago because of the crime, so felt the need to address the issue.  Yes, crime in Chicago is down from a few decades ago, but the headlines don’t lie.  Neither does the data.  Check out this stat from The Trace—Chicago’s least safe neighborhoods have five times the murder rate as New York’s least safe neighborhoods, but still better than smaller Milwaukee on a per capita basis.  

Analysis of U.S. Census data

Analysis of U.S. Census data

I lived in what’s considered a safe neighborhood in Chicago and still do in New York. But after living in a few major urban cities I do notice a difference between Chicago and the rest.  Chicago's crime  is the local, national and international story on the city—60 people shot in a single weekend, innocent kids killed playing in the street. There are many reasons why crime is so rampant—too many gangs, guns coming in from neighboring states, not enough jobs—and reforms of the previous two issues—finances and education—must happen to provide more police and community services and a better education for Chicago's youth—all things that will combat crime.  So while I didn't leave because of crime, the rise in violence has resulted in many middle and upper income African Americans leaving Chicago's south sidealmost 200,000 between 2000 and 2010.

What are the answers?

Chicago isn’t Detroit—its economy isn't on a historical steep decline.  No Chicago's economy is a healthy, diversified $561 billion. 

And new, exciting initiatives will move the city forward— Mayor Emanuel’s Neighborhood Opportunity Fund is an innovative way to allow growth in hot neighborhoods and invest in underserved commercial corridors without using public funds.  The recently updated transit oriented development ordinance lifts housing constraints around transit stations—places with the most demand—and provides more affordable housing.  And that construction means more transfer taxes, property taxes, money for schools and people to support local businesses.

I love Chicago.  It should be a dominant cityBut without budget and pension reforms Chicago (and Illinois) will not dominate.  Chicago's political leaders love it too. They just need to act together.


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Chicago gets $10 billion in transit projects

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