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Well-educated, highly paid residents leaving Cook County

Monday, February 17, 2014
Crain's Chicago Business
by Paul Merrion

As the Great Recession churned job prospects for many, Cook County lost about 13,000 residents with six-figure household incomes to other places, despite the widely hyped revival of downtown housing and jobs.

Between 2007 and 2011, Chicago and its immediate suburbs also ended up with about 10,000 fewer residents with a bachelor's degree or higher, even after accounting for new arrivals, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's first attempt to track population shifts by income and education at the county level.

In recent years, local officials and real estate developers have touted a resurgence in young tech workers and affluent empty-nesters revitalizing the city's core. Yet those trends are seemingly being overshadowed by more powerful factors, as other parts of the city and close-in suburbs send even larger numbers of prosperous, college-educated people to DuPage County and beyond.

“Wow, the movement back to the center that a lot of urban planners in the region were hoping for isn't borne out by this data,” says Rich Greene, associate professor of geography and urban studies at Northern Illinois University. “It's counter to what we've all been reading about.”

Cook County has been losing population to the collar counties for decades, but these new estimates provide fresh insight into that migration, tracking where people are moving to and from and their demographic characteristics. The numbers during the five-year period are not huge, given Cook County's 5.2 million population, but the county's net loss of about 8,400 people just to DuPage was the seventh-largest county-to-county migration in the nation.

In terms of building a vital economy with high-skilled, high-paying jobs that will generate a healthy tax base and an attractive quality of life, it shows the immediate Chicago area still has a ways to go.

“It's not generally the type of population a place would like to lose,” says Kenneth Johnson, a senior demographer and sociology professor at the University of New Hampshire who worked at Loyola University Chicago for about two decades.

Overall, more than 208,000 people left Cook County between 2007 and 2011, with another 136,000 moving in. However, in the midst of a national debate over immigration policy, the county's net loss was cut in half by an influx of more than 36,000 arrivals from abroad, primarily Asia.

Cook County's net loss of college-educated residents would have been worse but for immigrants. More than 4,000 of the nearly 17,000 Asians moving into Cook County held bachelor's degrees, almost equal to the net loss of nearly 4,900 county residents with the same education. The county also had a net loss of 5,225 people with graduate or professional degrees, according to census estimates.


Demographers say much of the shift can be explained by the aging of the population. While the city attracts young people right out of college, there are relatively more people in their 30s and 40s, and they tend to move outward in search of better schools and housing.

Estimates by education level don't count people under 25. But the migration of recent graduates in and out is probably a wash, given Chicago's many universities, says Megan Benetsky, a county migration analyst at the Census Bureau.

Most of those with bachelor's degrees who left Cook County went to DuPage and other nearby counties, but Los Angeles, Denver and Austin, Texas, were some of the strongest magnets for Chicago talent. Brooklyn, N.Y., and counties surrounding Kansas City and Madison, Wis., sent more college-educated workers to Cook County than they got back.

Experts say Cook County's losses probably were dampened by a sour real estate market that lingers, making it difficult to sell homes and move.

The census migration estimates sound “about right,” says Herman Brewer, chief of Cook County's Bureau of Economic Development. If anything, “I would think it's low.”

“Real estate market issues have kept that number smaller than it might have been,” he adds.

Pundits may argue whether the exodus of top talents results from high taxes or low expectations for an economic turnaround here—or simply the search for better schools or a warmer climate.

“After one of the last really bad winters, I think it was 1979, Chicago lost a whole lot of folks—a lot were nearing retirement,” Mr. Brewer says. “There will be a lot of demographic changes after this winter.”

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