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Chicago Gets Smaller… but Smarter Too

By now, most of you have probably heard the unsettling news that Chicago, the region, and the state of Illinois are losing population. For the state, these losses have been continuous since 2014.  For the metro area, there have been net losses in both 2015 and 2016. And for the city, the population dropped from 2015 to 2016.

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These losses have been relatively small in percentage terms. Still, a loss is a loss. Even worse, metro Chicago is the only one of the top ten US metro areas where the population is declining. Clearly, something is happening here that is not happening anywhere else, at least among the largest US metro areas.

But there is a little good news to go along with the bad, at lease inside city limits. While Chicago is getting smaller, it also appears to be getting both wealthier and smarter… or at least better educated. According to an article in Crain’s Chicago Business (“Chicago is Now the Best-Educated Big City,” by Greg Hinz, Oct. 9, 2017), Chicago has the highest educational attainment of the five largest US cities, beating out New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Houston. Fully 38.5% of all adult Chicagoans (aged 25 or older) now have a college degree or better, compared to 37% in New York. Not bad for a city once known as the buckle on the industrial belt stretching across the Midwest.


Look carefully at the numbers and you will see that the flow outward from the region is mostly occurring in the most impoverished areas of the city and suburbs. The downtown area, other close-in neighborhoods, and much of the North and Northwest Sides are growing, or at least (mostly) holding their own. And the people who are moving downtown and near downtown tend to be the young professionals who are attracted to the strong job market that the Central Area has become, and who bring the skills and the resumes needed to get the often very high-paying jobs that downtown Chicago offers.

This news is a silver lining – not a silver bullet. We cannot be proud of the fact that so many less fortunate Chicagoans are giving up the struggle against crime and blight in their communities and are leaving the city for greener pastures elsewhere. The fact remains – if we are not able to solve this problem, the exodus will only continue, further weakening large areas of the city, ruining lives and bringing more unwanted national attention to our ills.

Despite these problems, we should take some comfort knowing that Chicago still has many strengths upon which to build. The answer to how we can extend downtown and North Side prosperity across the entire city is still unclear – even to those who have tried hardest to find a solution. But it’s also comforting to know that smart and talented people continue to be drawn to our city.




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