Where did 10,488 people go? Not Cook County. - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Where did 10,488 people go? Not Cook County.

Flickr user Scott Swigart (CC)

Cook County is the second most populous county in the U.S.

Bad news bears, everyone: Cook County lost population in 2015.

The Census Bureau says the county lost 10,488 people last year. Yikes. Avid readers of our Data Points series will recall that while Chicago has been barely hanging on, and Illinois has been losing population (more than any other state, huzzah), Cook County has been carrying the growth mantle for almost 10 years now.

Not so in 2015, unfortunately.

At Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), we’ve been analyzing growth trends in Chicago, the region and the state of Illinois for decades, and for the past year we’ve been tracking these trends through our Data Points series. And the outlook has been bleak lately: Chicago gained 82 new people in 2014. Eighty-two. Nashville adds that many people every day.

And now it seems the county, which has grown every year since 2007, is in a slump. As the graph below shows, Cook County was the only one of the nation’s 10 most populous counties to lose population from 2014 to 2015.

But let’s take a deep breath. These are just estimates, and history suggests that they could be significantly off. Census projections in 2009 suggested Chicago had a population of 2,851,268 but once Bureau staff completed a full look at the city’s demographics as part of Census 2010, they found the city’s population that year was just 2,695,598. And yes, that's less—point taken—but it means the estimate could be off in either direction for Cook County this year. And a lot may have changed since mid-2015, which is the cut-off date for these estimates.

Also, one year does not a trend make. Since 2010, Cook County has gained nearly 40,000 people. And several other Chicago collar counties have grown.

Many of those counties had a much better time of it last year than Cook. Kane, Kendall and Will counties all grew, at comparable rates to their previous growth.

So it’s not all doomsday news.

That said, it’s certainly not all roses. These counties’ growth definitely didn’t make up for the loss from Cook—regionally we’re still 5,404 people less than we were. And, paired with the state’s ongoing population leakage and Chicago’s weak growth, this dip in county population points to issues we really need to address.

So what are these issues?

First of all, as of Wednesday, March 23, Illinois is the only state with a budget impasse. That’s almost nine months after we were supposed to pass one on July 1, 2015. You got it—Illinois could have brought a baby to term in the time our politicians have spent grandstanding.

It’s fine to roll our eyes at Springfield and move on with our lives, except that this budget impasse is costing people their jobs. Lutheran Social Services, for example, a highly respected organization, recently had to lay off 750 people because of the budget morass.

Which brings us, indirectly, to the second—and more pressing—issue: people’s lives.

Various studies have ranked Chicago between the most and third-most segregated city in the U.S. That isn’t good. Studies show that regions with higher levels of segregation don’t do as well economically.

Chicago has a lot of charms: architecture, a lakefront on the world’s premier source of fresh water, culture, etc. Unfortunately, those charms are being outweighed by issues like violence, poverty and ineffective government.

We need to address our segregation. MPC is working with Urban Institute to quantify the economic cost of Chicago’s segregation to the region as a whole—not just our low-income residents, but everybody. What does it cost us when our separation keeps potential employees from getting to jobs, or kids out of quality schools?

One negative impact, as you may have guessed, is population loss: According to Crain’s, Chicago’s African American population shrank by 17 percent between the 2000 and 2010 census, and by another 4 percent since 2010.

With population loss come unwelcome friends like loss of congressional representation and fleeing businesses. And with friends like those, who needs enemies?

The other elephant in the room is government efficiency. MPC is part of Transform Illinois, a coalition of government, business and civic partners who want governments to work better for Illinois residents. We’ve found that local governments, faced with stalemate in Springfield, are already working to improve their services for their constituents. Springfield needs to remove barriers and let these governments keep making residents’ lives easier.

Chicago is a great city with some tough challenges, and we can pull ourselves together. MPC’s work is making that happen in 2016. We’re committed to making life easier for residents, whether than means more opportunities for families, more effective governments, more quality choices for traveling from A to B, more opportunities to live near transit or more amenities to enjoy as a resident of a world-class city.

People are voting with their feet, and they’re saying they want to live somewhere else. Let’s turn the tables. 2016 seems like as a good a year as any.

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For more than 80 years, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has made the Chicago region a better place to live and work by partnering with businesses, communities and governments to address the area's toughest planning and development challenges. MPC works to solve today's urgent problems while consistently thinking ahead to prepare the region for the needs of tomorrow. Read more about our work »

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