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Ups and Downs - Will the Last One to Leave Please Turn Out the Lights…

Chicago is a proud city with an impressive history – it was the fastest growing American metropolis of the 19th Century. It rose from the ashes of the 1871 fire to become bigger and better than before. It is the birthplace of the skyscraper and deep-dish pizza!

But even the most prideful Chicagoan knows that the city has had more than its fair share of challenges. These challenges have multiplied since the middle of the 20th Century, and seem to have gotten even worse since the beginning of the 21st. The most recent evidence of this unfortunate trend comes from a Bloomberg analysis of census data that shows Chicago losing more residents than any other American metropolis. The Bloomberg data shows that an average of 156 Chicagoans are leaving the city each day. It may be that these exiles are looking for warmer weather, better economic opportunities, lower costs or some combination of all of these things.

While Chicago is not alone among large, American cities to see out-migration, it is nevertheless leading the charge. New York and Los Angeles (numbers one and two in the population rankings) are also seeing a net loss of people. The Bloomberg analysis estimates that New York is losing 132 people per day, and that Los Angeles is losing 128. However, the larger size of these cities means that Chicago is not only seeing the largest absolute number of move-outs, it is experiencing a higher percentage of loss that its two, larger peers.

The movement of people from one area of the country to another changes over time. It is possible that today’s bad news for Chicago will turn into good news sometime in the years ahead, and that future generations will rediscover the city and start moving in again. But it is also true that Chicago has been under-performing its peer-group for many years, and that this under-performance seems to be accelerating.

There is not much we can do about the weather. By the same token, we are not powerless to change the present, or shape our future. We can and should insist on a more professional, ethical and responsible government. We should demand balanced budgets and an end to the “pay-to-play” policies that have done so much damage to both the city and the state. (Recent revelations about Ed Burke, Danny Solis and Michael Madigan are just the latest evidence that corruption in Chicago and Illinois is intractable and damaging to our economic future.) Across a wide range of factors, there is much more we can do to level the playing field and create greater economic opportunity for a broader cross-section of the region’s people.

We should all take some comfort from the extraordinary strength of the city’s downtown area and close-in neighborhoods. The Central Area has flourished in the 21st Century as never before, and there is reason to believe this economic golden goose can benefit more of the city and region as it continues to expand and grow. But it is also true that the economic benefits of the downtown area can only reach so far. For the many people in and around Chicago, the downtown economy might as well be a million miles away. They lack the skills, education and connections that are required to be a part of this thriving region. Many other parts of the city and suburbs have stagnated or declined as the 21st Century marches on.

The Bloomberg data makes it clear that, despite its many strengths and competitive advantages, Chicago needs to do more to make itself attractive to current and potential future residents. Only then will we see Chicago lose its unenviable title as the number one city in America that people want to leave.

Steve Cain is Secretary of RPBG. He writes articles and compiles content for our quarterly newsletter. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of RPBG and its Members.



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