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When Black Residents Leave Cook County, Where Do They Go?

For over a decade, population growth in Cook County has been essentially flat, ticking down or up slightly from year to year. Similarly, Illinois has lost population over the last decade. Each time that new Census Bureau estimates are released, showing slow or no growth, we worry where the county is headed: Are we in decline? Are we losing out to other areas? What’s behind the anemic trends?

The loss of Black population from the city of Chicago – down more than 200,000 in the last decade – is a well known factor in Cook County’s struggle to keep residents. But are Black residents the cause of slow or no growth? And if Black residents are leaving, where are they going? Do they make “micro moves” within the metro region or are they headed far away to distant states?

We unearthed some surprising findings about movement into and out of Cook County. First, Cook County residents are no more likely to leave Illinois than are residents in the rest of the state. Cook is home to 45 percent of Illinois residents, but Cook residents are 43 percent of Illinoisans moving to other parts of the U.S.  This belies any notion that Cook County is a driving force behind Illinois’ own slow population trends.

Second, the loss of Black population from the city of Chicago may garner national attention — including a front-page New York Times story in early 2020 —  but at the county level, Black residents are neither the largest group that moves nor the group most likely to move. About 200,000 White Cook County residents move each year compared to 100,000 Black residents (These moves include persons leaving the county but also persons who move within the county). When it comes to moving, in general, Black residents are not the leading group of movers: About 16 percent of Cook County’s Asian residents move each year, compared to 13 percent of Black residents.

The above numbers describe the size and frequency of movement from one address to another. Given low growth in Cook County, there is much speculation about what areas attract those residents who get up and leave. 

When looking deeper at trends related to residents who move out of Cook County, it turns out that when Black residents of Cook County move away from the county, they are about twice as likely than other groups to move to a nearby state like Indiana or Wisconsin, and less likely to go to farther-away parts of the United States. When Black residents of Cook County move away from the county, 22 percent go to a state the shares a border with the Land of Lincoln, compared to 12 percent of White leavers, 11 percent of Latino leavers and six percent of Asian leavers. 

To which states do Cook County  “leavers” go to? As noted, Black people are most likely to head to a neighboring state. Annually about 3,500 Cook County Black residents move to Indiana and 1,400 go to Wisconsin. But there is evidence of a southern migration. Texas is second destination for former Cook County Black residents (1,800 annually) and Georgia is the number four destination at 1,300 annually. For former White residents the number one destination is California, for Latinos it’s Texas and for Asians it’s California.

We were able to identify some of the counties that Cook County leavers go to, such as Los Angeles County in California, but many movers go to smaller counties that aren’t identified by the Census Bureau, that are likely to be somewhat removed from large central cities like Los Angeles or Houston, and which fall into a category of “unidentified” county destination.

Our findings show that for Cook County Black residents who leave, the most common move is just across the border and into Lake County, Indiana, which borders Cook County. Lake County attracts about 2,300 Cook County Black residents annually. The second most likely destination is “unidentified Georgia,” which suggests a movement not to Atlanta but to a suburban or perhaps more rural place. Similarly, for White leavers, the top destination is “unidentified Colorado.”

What do these findings tell us about the nature of African American movement? At the county level, at least, Black movers are not “responsible” for Cook’s flat growth, with White and Asian movers outpacing them, depending on the measure used. And when Black residents leave, they are most likely move to Indiana, and to the Indiana county adjacent to Cook County.

So, many Black movers from Cook County are not, in a certain sense, movers at all: they remain in the metropolitan Chicago area with access to at least some of its labor markets, housing markets, transportation and educational opportunities. The forces that impel Black movement to Indiana or Wisconsin (and indeed to Georgia) are a subject for another study. But the data we analyzed add nuance to our understanding of movement. Black movement out of Cook County is often a relocation within the metro area, and not a move entirely out of the region.