This city’s broad shoulders are narrowing. Chicago lost citizens again last year, the only one of the country’s 20 largest cities to see its population drop. It was the third consecutive year of decline.
Chicago’s headcount fell by 8,638 residents from 2015 to 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The previous year, the city’s population dropped by 4,934 people. The region is also shrinking. The greater Chicago area, defined by the Census Bureau as the city, its suburbs, northwest Indiana and southeast Wisconsin, suffered the sharpest drop in population of any metropolitan area in the nation in 2016 — a loss of 19,570 residents. The news wasn’t any better for Illinois as a whole. Its population dropped a net 37,508 people. No other state experienced that large a loss.
It’s bad news, but it’s also news we’ve heard before. For decades. After peaking at 3.6 million in 1950, the city began shrinking. Chicago’s population rose in the 1990s, but by 2010 it again dropped. Prior declines always had been cushioned by a steady influx of Mexican immigrants. By 2007, that trend slowed.
Many components factor into a city’s overall health, and one of the most telling is population — as in, do people invest their futures here or go elsewhere? A city that’s getting larger is a city with a broader tax base, more job opportunities, a bigger labor pool, more representation in Congress and a larger share of federal, population-based funding.
Here, though, potential employers see local and state governments that are forever piling on new regulations, adding tax increases and making the cost of doing business ever-higher. City aldermen, Cook County Board members and state legislators see employers as golden geese they can extort: Here’s the minimum wage you’ll pay, here’s your sick-time policy, here’s your next sales tax increase …
Chicago’s population woes aren’t critical yet, but they need attention now, before the slide gets dramatically worse.
While making Chicago more jobs-friendly would help slow the outflow, a stronger employment climate arguably also would lead to less crime, less poverty and less household dysfunction. Chicago especially needs to persuade businesses big and small to set root in job-starved neighborhoods on the South and West sides, where the loss of African-American population endangers the health and future of those communities.
We’ve seen the energy and enthusiasm that major employers bring to struggling neighborhoods. Think Whole Foods in Englewood, which opened last fall. On opening day, a shopper mused, “What if Englewood in the next 10 years will be the new Hyde Park?” That’s a glint of enthusiasm we like to see. Yes, Chicago helped make the Whole Foods opening happen with $10.7 million in city subsidies. But the store partnered with a local community college to hire many of its employees, and put on display items produced by local businesses.
We’re not keen on routinely dangling city tax dollars to lure prospective employers to impoverished neighborhoods, but in the case of Whole Foods, which can seed economic growth in Englewood, infrastructure subsidies in the form of new roads and sewers benefited a community as much as a company. We could see the use of similar incentives to draw major employers to struggling neighborhoods, if the potential for jobs and economic growth is genuine.
Such incentives aren’t a cure-all, however. In 2014, the Tribune held an event featuring a discussion with a union leader, one of the city’s top educators and a mayoral aide. The evening touched on a variety of urban topics, one of which was the question of how to attract the best jobs to Chicago. Everyone agreed on the answer: Chicago can attract a steady stream of incoming employers if it can offer those companies a highly trained and educated workforce.
One bridge to that workforce is the City Colleges of Chicago revamp that retooled each campus to focus on a specific job sector. Companies in the region help craft the coursework, so that graduates can go seamlessly from school to careers. It’s the kind of work force-prepping that companies crave, and we’d love to see it expanded throughout the region and state, for that matter.
There are other well-known reasons people are leaving the city. The numbing toll of violence. Our cash-starved school system. Miserable public finances and the likelihood of ever-higher taxes to pay down vast state and local government debts. Each is Sisyphean in scope, with no solutions in sight. But getting more employers to open their doors — and jobs — to the city is an achievable goal, one that could help reverse the downsizing of Chicago.
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