CHICAGO – It’s known here as the Exodus.
People are leaving Illinois in droves. Republicans blame the state’s high taxes and its unfunded pension liability, which tops $130 billion. Democrats believe it’s the state’s lack of investment in education and infrastructure.
One thing is certain: Illinois’ population has declined by 157,000 residents over the past five years, making it one of only two states — West Virginia is the other — to lose people over the past decade.
Illinois’ predicament is a perfect storm of declining manufacturing, stagnant immigration, declining birthrates, young people leaving for college and never coming back, long-standing economic discrimination against black residents, high housing costs, and the continued draw of residents to the Sun Belt.
What’s happening in the Land of Lincoln may offer national lessons about the deindustrialized economy and how that creates inequity issues in wages and housing, said Matthew Wilson, a senior research specialist at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute.
For a Rust Belt state to thrive, Wilson said, officials have to focus on retaining and growing its manufacturing sector by training workers, providing affordable housing and attracting new businesses. Building up the manufacturing sector has to go hand in hand with attracting high-paying jobs, he said.
Illinois has struggled with all of that.
A 2016 poll by Southern Illinois University found that nearly half of Illinois residents wanted to move to another state, citing taxes, weather, ineffective and corrupt local government and a lack of middle-class jobs. A March poll from the university found that two-thirds of Illinois residents think the state is going in the wrong direction.
Between 2017 and 2018, 114,000 more residents left Illinois than moved in from other states. Those who left mostly moved to Florida, Texas and Indiana, IRS data shows.
Chicago’s population has dropped slightly, largely because black residents are leaving for areas with lower housing costs and more jobs that don’t require higher education. In downstate Illinois, the population loss has come largely from a decrease in manufacturing jobs.
Nearly 15 miles south of the famed Magnificent Mile in the booming downtown Loop is another stretch of Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. Up until the 1980s, this part of the Roseland neighborhood was “the place to be” for black residents, lined with stores and restaurants. But many of those are gone now, leaving only the boarded-up facades and a distant memory.
As Abraham Lacy drove down the street earlier this month, the new father and Chicago resident described the “heart-wrenching” state of the area since its decline began 50 years ago.
This was a manufacturing hub. But those jobs are gone. Nearly 28% of the population lives below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“There’s no hope,” he said. “It brings me to tears. Here we are in the third-largest city in the country.”
Lacy is the executive director of the Far South Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit that brings commercial investments from public and private partnerships to local low-income, majority-black neighborhoods like Morgan Park, West Pullman and Roseland to alleviate poverty.
Since peaking in 1980 at nearly 1.2 million people, the black population of Chicago has dropped by more than 400,000 people, and the trend continues. Black residents are leaving Chicago for the suburbs and for such neighboring states as Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin.
Some are reversing the Great Migration of the first half of the 20th century, returning to Southern cities including Atlanta, Dallas and Houston, said Pete Saunders, an urban planning consultant based in the Chicago area who has written extensively on this issue.
“They just feel frozen out of opportunity,” he said. “They feel Chicago is a closed system. They can’t get ahead here. It’s designed for others to get ahead.”
Chicago is still attracting educated people seeking jobs in law, finance and tech, and many neighborhoods of the city are thriving. But there’s a growing divide between high-paying jobs and low-wage, “dead-end” work, with not many jobs in between, said David Wilson, a geography professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Real estate development is booming along Lake Michigan and in the Loop. Gentrification, he said, “is spreading its tentacles across the city,” including the traditionally poorer South Side and West Side. In other parts of the city, including Roseland, residents lacking economic opportunity are leaving.
“There’s something wrong here,” said Jawanza Malone, executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, a South Side grassroots group that is leading a rent control campaign “to stem the tide of displacement.”
Chicago is among a handful of big cities that are losing their black residents, including Los Angeles, San Diego and San Jose.
The high rate of black residents leaving is the main cause for Chicago’s stagnant population, and the drain could get worse, several fair housing advocates and urban demographers said.
More than a third of young adults want to leave Chicago, a January survey from the University of Chicago’s GenForward Project found. Participants, especially blacks, said the biggest reason for wanting out was racism and how that affects policing, job opportunities and neighborhood development.
Chicago’s new black mayor, Lori Lightfoot, seems keenly aware of this challenge, calling it “the proverbial canary in the mine shaft” when asked in April about the city’s population decline by the Chicago Tribune.
“We’ve got to create real opportunities and incentives for businesses and for all neighborhoods to prosper,” she added.
Chicago’s population is staying afloat because of a continued influx of Asian immigrants. The number of Chicago-region residents born in Asia has increased by 60,000 since 2010, while the number of Chicago-region residents born in Latin America has decreased by 18,000, according to a Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.