Read SSDAN Director Bill Frey's comments on black migration in the Chicago Tribune: Chicago-area black population drops as residents leave for South, suburbs
Cook County in 2015 recorded the largest black population of any county in the U.S., a title it has held for several years, but its lead grows shakier as more African-Americans are opting to move to outlying suburbs or warm-weather states, according to new U.S. Census Bureau data. Between 2014 and 2015, more than 9,000 black residents left Cook County, and since 2010, the Chicago area, which for the census includes parts of Indiana and Wisconsin, has lost more than 35,000 black residents. The exodus is greater than in any other metropolitan area in the country. "I have very little desire to return to the city," said Roosevelt Johnson, 47, who moved to Lake County 10 years ago when he first saw the writing on the wall: limited services on the South Side, where he grew up, and unaffordable housing on the North Side, where he later moved. "It became a rat race of having to try to get from Point A to Point B with raising our family. Making sure everyone is in the place they need to be, despite escalating costs. It became too much for us to handle." Chicago itself lost 181,000 black residents between 2000 and 2010, according to census data. The numbers are indicative of a larger pattern of Illinois' general population loss, which dropped by 22,194 residents between 2014 and 2015. The Chicago metropolitan statistical area, defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as the city and suburbs that extend into Wisconsin and Indiana, lost an estimated 6,263 residents between 2014 and 2015, the area's first population dip since at least 1990. Still, Cook County had the largest number of black residents of any county since at least 2010, and holds the lead over California's Los Angeles County by about 300,000 residents, according to the new census data released Thursday. Cook County has about 1.3 million black residents. Propelling black flight is the search for stable incomes, safe neighborhoods and prosperity, with many African-Americans, similarly to other Illinois residents, flocking to warm-weather states. During the years after the economic recession of the late 2000s, migration to those states slowed, but it has heated up again as states in the South have greater job opportunities and affordable housing. It's a trend that William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, calls "reverse migration." The Greater Atlanta area in 2015 had the greatest numerical gain in black residents of any city area in the U.S., with more than 198,031 black residents moving there, according to an analysis of census data. But Fulton County, the county where most of Atlanta sits, has far fewer black residents than Cook County. Fulton County had 460,505 black residents in 2015. While jobs are attracting younger African-Americans in their 20s and 30s, they're heading south for cultural reasons, too, perhaps to reconnect with their identities or relatives in a region with deep African-American history, Frey said. "Atlanta has a rising black middle-class population, and people want to link into that labor market," Frey said. "But there's also a cultural part to it. If you're moving to a place where the economy is not so much better (than where you were) and you don't have family or friends there, but there is an established black community, that's attractive to you." While experts believe it's largely middle-class families leaving Chicago, affluent African-Americans have relocated as well. Last fall, a Tribune article detailed how Chicago had fallen out of the top 10, from seventh place to 21st, in the percentage of black households earning at least $100,000. Many of the cities on the list are now in the South as a result of reverse migration. Census numbers also show that African-Americans continue to move to the suburbs, a pattern that slowly began in the 1970s, when manufacturing jobs started to dry up, and picked up in the 2000s. Stephanie Schmitz Bechteler, director of research and evaluation at the Chicago Urban League, said suburbs in DuPage and Kane counties have better housing and job opportunities, citing the Interstate 88 business corridor in DuPage. "They've got lower taxes, more job opportunities, maybe better-funded school districts. All of those things are available in Cook County, too, but not as strongly," she said. But there are issues that come with the increasing loss of the black middle class in neighborhoods across Chicago, Schmitz Bechteler said. Those left behind often belong to households that can't afford to leave and the families that are struggling most. "You lose that healthy mix of incomes in the community, which can be problematic for the families still living there, in terms of investment and reinvestment and circulating dollars," she said. "I'd never fault a family for leaving, but it does present challenges for the community they leave behind." Johnson, the 47-year-old who grew up on Chicago's South Side and now lives in northern Lake County, understands that a black exodus can create problems for predominantly black neighborhoods, particularly on the South Side. "If a human being doesn't have the ability to provide for him or himself they become desperate, and that's when these areas become dangerous," he said, referencing his time living in the South Shore neighborhood more than a decade ago, when he first began noticing an increase in violence. "I think it's very unfortunate. It's creating a dangerous culture of individuals. If I didn't have a job, if I had little education and I'm hungry ... I'll become a desperate individual." Johnson said he mainly left the South Side due to the area's limited resources, such as the availability of grocery stores. From there he moved to Rogers Park, where he briefly raised his children but left when he failed to find affordable housing options for his family of five. Giving up on Chicago wasn't easy, considering how much the city had shaped his life — from skating at The Loop Roller Disco on West 95th Street to taking eager bites into saucy Italian beef sandwiches. But his decision to leave is reaffirmed with each visit, and the sight of crumbling infrastructure in his old neighborhoods. "I'm saddened by the fact that my trips to the city are now filled with less enthusiasm, more apprehension and a much more sobering view that 'Sweet Home Chicago' is more so in song than reality," he said.