‘Reverse Migration’ to Blame for the Sudden Drop in Chicago’s Black Population, Residents Head for Suburban South

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

In 2015, Chicago’s Cook County boasted the largest Black community of any other county in the U.S., home to a whopping 1.3 million African-American residents. The county has held the prestigious title for some time now, but a mass migration of its Black residents southward is chipping away at its impressive lead.

According to data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau, more African-Americans are choosing to move to outlying suburban communities or “warm-weather” states in the U.S. Over 9,000 Black residents left Cook County between 2014-15, bringing the total up to a staggering 35,000 African-Americans who’ve left the Chicago area since 2010, the Chicago Tribune reports. The exodus is greater than in any other metropolitan area in the country, according to the paper.

Census data shows that Chicago itself lost a total of 181,000 African-American residents between 2000 and 2010. The city’s metropolitan statistical area, defined by the census bureau, extends into the city and suburbs of Wisconsin and Indiana, which lost around 6,263 residents between 2014 and 2015.

“I have very little desire to return to the city,” 47-year-old Roosevelt Johnson told the Chicago Tribune. According to the paper, Johnson moved to Lake County, in the suburbs, 10 years ago after he was limited by the lack of resources on the South side and costly housing on the city’s north side.

“It became a rat race of having to try to get from Point A to Point B with raising our family,” he said. “Making sure everyone is in the place they need to be, despite escalating costs. It became too much for us to handle.”

Lack of opportunities and sky-high rent are just a few reasons Black residents are choosing to leave Chicago. Suburban communities are more attractive to African-Americans seeking prosperity, safe neighborhoods, and stable incomes, the Chicago Tribune reports. Southern states like Georgia have also become appealing to young Black Americans, as they have better job opportunities and affordable living spaces.

The Greater Atlanta Area saw a spike in its Black population in 2015, according to the publication. The city boasted the highest “numerical gain in Black residents of any city area” in the country, as nearly 198,031 African-American residents moved to the area, census data shows.

Brookings Institution demographer William Frey calls the phenomenon “reverse migration.” Aside from more job opportunities, Frey said Blacks in their 20’s and 30’s could be headed South for cultural reasons as well.

“Atlanta has a rising Black middle-class population, and people want to link into that labor market,” he explained. “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.”

As African-Americans continue to move away from Chicago in search of prosperity, director of research and evaluation at the Chicago Urban League, Stephanie Schmitz Bechteler, said that their move could be problematic for families who choose to stay behind. The increased loss of a middle-class makes it harder on families who might not be able to relocate, the Chicago Tribune reports.

“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,” Schmitz Bechteler explained. “I’d never fault a family for leaving, but it does present challenges for the community they leave behind.”


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