Is Lightfoot’s war on poverty too late to stop Chicago’s black exodus?

A new study says Chicago’s black population decline is due to decades of racial inequality.

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UIC Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy

A recent study suggests systemic inequality has kept large segments of Chicago’s black population entrenched in decades-long poverty and puts a new perspective on Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s ambitious plan to end the scourge in a generation.

Between the Great Migration and Growing Exodus: The Future of Black Chicago?, a report from the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, describes a city that ballooned beginning in the 1930s as black people migrated north to avoid the constraints of the Jim Crow south reaching its pinnacle in the ‘80s. But once here, they found a new set of inequities and the population has been on decline since. 

“At its worst, Chicago has become a hostile environment for black people — and public policy has played a role,” wrote Alden Loury, senior editor of the Race, Class and Communities desk at WBEZ and a former publisher of The Chicago Reporter. “The report highlights clear examples including the city’s massive transformation of public housing, its punitive onslaught of fines and fees, overly aggressive policing, and sweeping closures of public schools. For decades, in some cases, these policies have exacted a great toll on the residents of Chicago’s black communities.”

After decades of population growth, the number of black residents peaked in the 1980s at 1.2 million before a sharp decline. By 2016, the city had lost 350,000 black residents, according to the report.

“While we may never know the wide array of explicit reasons why hundreds of thousands of black Chicagoans over the past few decades have decided to no longer make Chicago home, the report makes a rather strong suggestion of the bucket into which we can toss that multitude of individual choices: racial inequality,” Loury wrote.

Lightfoot’s recently announced plan focuses on attacking policies harmful to the city’s most vulnerable. While light on concrete details, the plan includes eliminating regressive taxes like extra fines and fees, creating quality jobs with livable salaries, lowering the cost of utilities, providing financing for more affordable housing and helping Chicagoans better access public benefits.

At a City Club of Chicago luncheon earlier this month, she wasn’t shy about blaming persistent poverty on systematic issues. The institutions responsible for the problem must now also help correct those injustices, she said.

“We did this historically by using government as a tool to create and enforce race-based discrimination that killed, crushed, and systematically reduced the lives of too many over generations,” Lightfoot said. “A whole infrastructure, perfected over time, and savagely enforced for centuries which at its core embraced an ethos that black and brown, Asian and indigenous lives did not matter, period.”

Equitable growth will be key in reversing Chicago’s population decline, she said.

Poverty is shrinking. So is the black population.

Over the last decade, overall poverty has actually already been declining in the city, while remaining cemented into pockets of the West, South and Far South Side. These areas are also experiencing the largest population losses.

While the city has lost residents between 1990 and 2016, the losses haven’t been distributed equally, instead it has been concentrated in those specific areas, while other areas grew. 

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‘Exodus’ examines rise and fall of Chicago’s black population


The majority of neighborhoods experienced growth are generally downtown, on the North Side or on the Southwest side. For example, the Near North Side has grown by more than 23,500 residents since 1990, while Englewood has lost more than 22,000 people. 

At a press conference at City Hall Wednesday, a coalition of community organizations doubted the mayor’s earnestness to address poverty considering that the grassroot groups weren’t given a seat at the table.

“We feel insulted that the mayor would have a poverty summit with people that are not impoverished. We have the lived experience, as such, we should be at the table offering some solutions,” said Edrika Fulford, of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

Despite earning a college degree from Roosevelt University, Fulford spent about four years cycling through homelessness. She now lives in Chatham, a neighborhood that has remained heavily black since the 80s, despite losing nearly 10,000 residents. 

While she doesn’t see her neighbors moving out away, she fears they’ll likely end up in a similar predicament, she said

“They just can’t afford to maintain. They can’t afford it. I’m expecting them to be camped out on the street,” said Fulford, adding “What we need is affordable housing. What we need is a dedicated revenue stream that won’t be subject to budget cuts or a new administration. We need to make ending homelessness a priority in the city of Chicago.”

Lightfoot has repeatedly ruled out creating a dedicated revenue stream for such issues. In response to Wednesday’s press conference, Lightfoot told reporters, “Nobody needs a golden ticket to talk about the fact that one in five of our people are suffering,” according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

The ticket

In some neighborhoods, gentrification can be blamed for rapid demographic changes while other neighborhoods’ population change can be blamed on the destruction of public housing, according to the study.

Census data analysis on population in Chicago

White gentrification of black neighborhoods is not only a story of the North Side. In Woodlawn, near the site of the planned Obama Presidential Center, the black population has declined by nearly 7,000 residents since 1990. During the same same period, the white population has risen by more than 1,000, according to the study.

Lightfoot recently unveiled her plan aimed at preserving affordable housing in the area, which includes resources for those being displaced and an effort to turn city-owned land into mixed-income housing. The Woodlawn Housing Preservation Ordinance, which hasn’t been introduced to City Council, proposes $4.5 million in new and expanded housing programs, according to the Hyde Park Herald.

Though the proposal incorporates language proposed in the community benefits agreement, it falls short of what vulnerable residents need to avoid being displaced by rising rents, said Sharon Payne of Southside Together Organizing for Power.

“It does not do nearly enough to make sure that working families do not get displaced in Woodlawn,” she said at Wednesday’s press conference. “People who work their butts off working full time jobs in restaurants and the like … that ordinance is telling these people you have to go.”

Where to go

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The study also looks into where the residents are going and most aren’t moving very far away at all. Of the black residents leaving Chicago, but staying close by, most are moving to northern Indiana. The black residents that are leaving Cook County are headed to the South, according to the study. A 2017 Chicago Reporter analysis also found that thousands of Chicago Public Schools students who transferred out of the city’s predominantly poor and African American schools in recent years ended up enrolling in other segregated schools in Illinois and northwest Indiana.

Dr. Eve Ewing, an assistant professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, who contributed to the study, wrote that understanding these dynamics requires thinking beyond the common perception of “moving” as a choice because it is “defined by systems of exclusion and constraint.” 

“On one hand, Black Chicagoans contend with multiple decades of malfeasance at the hands of virtually every public service ostensibly dedicated to serving them, from policing to health care, from housing to education, from transportation to political accountability,” wrote Ewing. “Combined, this continued institutional failure … serves to make the city functionally unlivable for many Black residents.”

The Chicago Reporter’s analysis used demographer Rob Paral’s community area summaries of U.S. Census data.

David Eads produced the graphic for this story using a new tool we’ve been experimenting with called Observable. You can see his work here.