Chicago area sees largest black exodus in the U.S.

The Chicago area lost more than 35,000 black residents between 2014 to 2015, according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau. This stands as the largest black exodus of any metropolitan area in the country, according to analysis from the Chicago Tribune.

This loss of black residents led the Chicago metropolitan statistical area, which includes the city and suburbs stretching into Wisconsin and Indiana, to its first population loss in more than two decades.

What’s causing black families to pack up and ship out? A search for safety and success are likely suspects.

Black futures look bleak in Chicago

Chicago youth of color are suffering from an unparalleled drought of economic opportunity compared with peer cities, the state of Illinois and the nation as a whole, according to a January 2016 report titled “Lost: The Crisis of Jobless and Out of School Teens and Young Adults in Chicago, Illinois and the U.S.” and prepared for the Alternative Schools Network by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Nearly half of Chicago’s young black men ages 20 to 24 are out of school and out of work – a rate four times higher than that for white Chicago men in the same age bracket, and far higher than the same groups in New York City and Los Angeles.

But joblessness doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Those struggling to gain access to economic opportunities in Chicago also play a part in the city’s epidemic of violent crime.

In nearly every year between 1991 and 2011, the majority of convicted murderers in Chicago were between the ages of 17 and 25, according to city crime data. They were also more likely to fall victim to murder than people in any other age group.

But research shows access to job opportunities reduces violence among disadvantaged Chicago youth. University of Pennsylvania criminologist Sara Heller found that in Chicago, a mere summer stint at a minimum-wage job resulted in four fewer violent-crime arrests per 100 youth over 16 months.

It’s unsurprising then, that jobs numbers look even worse in communities plagued with violent crime.

In eight Chicago neighborhoods on the city’s South and West sides – East Garfield Park, North Lawndale, Oakland, Fuller Park, Washington Park, Englewood, West Englewood and Pullman – more than two-thirds of people ages 20 to 24 are jobless.

Opportunities disappearing

So who’s to blame?

The city’s public schools certainly deserve scrutiny. But even if black Chicagoans had access to better educational opportunities, it’s a stretch to think good jobs in their communities would simply appear en masse.

A look at the city’s disappearing opportunities for those without college diplomas may provide better insight into the job deserts in parts of the city.

For example, industrial jobs once formed the backbone of Chicago’s black middle class. But the city now sits at an all-time low for factory employment. State data show that nearly half of Chicago’s manufacturing jobs have disappeared over the last 15 years.


The manufacturing sector in the larger Chicago area within Illinois’ borders has fallen on similarly hard times. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show the Chicago-Naperville-Arlington Heights metro area has fewer manufacturing jobs today than it had in the worst months of the Great Recession.


Manufacturers leaving the Chicago area often cite high property taxes and workers’ compensation costs as reasons for relocating. Meanwhile, these kinds of jobs are seeing a renaissance in nearby Michigan and Indiana.

Beyond manufacturing, the city makes it tough for people who want to create a job for themselves by starting a business. Potential entrepreneurs drown in red tape. Starting a small business in Chicago has been described as a “dystopian nightmare.”

spike in the city’s minimum wage over the last decade may also have played a role in the five-point drop in employment among Chicago’s 16-to-19-year-olds since 2005. Research shows that minimum-wage hikes can reduce job opportunities for black youth.

Anecdotal evidence surrounding Chicago City Council’s Dec. 2, 2014, vote to hike the minimum wage by 58 percent over four and a half years suggests this trend will continue.

The owner of the iconic Original Rainbow Cone ice cream shop in Beverley said she would be forced to cut the number of students her business employs over the summer by half. A Panera Bread location cited the hike when it decided to close, as did Home Run Inn pizza when it killed plans to open a new location in Portage Park.

Building a better environment

Chicago officials may have had the best of intentions when pursuing policies like the minimum-wage hike, but the outcome of making it harder and more expensive to do business is that workers without college degrees are left with very few options if they want to pursue a career.

The Chicago area should be a beacon of prosperity, but a poor business climate is driving entry-level and middle-class job opportunities out to greener pastures, as well as potential for new investment and business expansion.

The same tired political rhetoric of more targeted public investment, city planning and carefully branded but ineffective new programs must give way to policy solutions focusing on growing job opportunities from the ground up.

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