Cook County has the largest non-Hispanic black population in the country, but the population is declining for the seventh straight year according to newly released census data.
Between 2016 and 2017 the U.S. Census Bureau estimated Cook County’s black residents left the region at a higher rate than previous years. More than 14,000 African-Americans left the county lowering the black population by 1.15 percent. Cook County has gained over 16,000 residents across all demographics since 2010, whereas black residents, in particular, have lost over 61,000 people during that same period.
Alden Loury, the director of research and evaluation at the Metropolitan Planning Council, examines policy and data to help provide a more “equitable, sustainable and prosperous” Chicago region. Loury can’t point to anything definitively that shows why black residents are leaving en masse. However, he says, the data he has viewed can suggest possible reasons why this is happening.
“From a speculative standpoint, there are a number of African-American families that are making a decision to find better opportunities for themselves in places outside of Cook County,” Loury said. “The areas in particular which stand out to me is related to employment and related to housing.”
Black unemployment in Illinois was the highest in the country in 2016 at 12.7 percent, according to Illinois Policy Institute. With the report saying this rate was a result of manufacturing job losses in the Chicago area.
Darnell Shields is the executive director of Austin Coming Together, a community group looking to improve the quality of life in the Austin Neighborhood. He said he has witnessed a large number of African-Americans leaving his community and in other neighborhoods across Chicago. He believes there are two main reasons why African-Americans are migrating out of Cook County.
“Most people I know who left Chicago is because they are in a pursuit of either a safer environment or greater access to obtain success,” Shields said.
Shields believes the access to opportunities is the driving force behind black residents leaving the county. The lack of jobs, training and education.
“Opportunities to develop or increase their capacity to be even more employable and more successful,” Shields said. “People associate with being successful and having a higher quality of life in areas that exist outside of Chicago. Whether that be in the suburbs or in other cities.”
Loury echoed these feelings of missing opportunities as well as the search to find better education and housing options for younger-lower-income African-American families outside of Cook County.
“The population lost story is largely about lower income and younger African-American families and their challenges to find affordable housing and connections to the job market,” he said.
Rob Paral, a demographic and public policy consultant, believes the flight of black residents from Cook County is lacking any real reason why its happening. He believes the outward migration of black residents is a civic failure that is being ignored.
“It’s a bit of a mystery as to why this is happening,” Paral said. “No one has done the legwork to figure out definitively why there is a mass exodus of black people in Cook County.”
Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West Sides.