Suburban Cook County biggest area population loser in recent years, census estimates show

Though the city of Chicago has lost residents in recent years, the suburbs in Cook County have lost more, while suburbs far from the city are booming, new U.S. census estimates show.

Chicago lost about 82,000 people, or 3% of its population, from April 2020 to July 2023, giving the city a total of 2,664,452 residents, according to the census. But the city’s rate of population decline has sharply slowed, falling to just 0.3% — or 8,208 people — last year.

Cook County as a whole from 2020-2023 lost 188,000 people, or 3.6%, leaving the current population at slightly more than 5 million residents. Most of the departures occurred outside the city.

Census 2023 population estimates for the Chicago area: Did your city, town or village gain or lose residents?

Western suburbs like Cicero, Berwyn and Riverside lost about 5%, while south and southwest suburbs, including Summit, Oak Lawn, Dolton, Calumet City, Hazel Crest, Markham, Country Club Hills, Alsip and Palos Heights, lost 4.5% or more.

Meanwhile, far southwest suburbs including Yorkville, Plainfield and Oswego showed the most growth, with Yorkville growing by more than 3,000, or nearly 15%.

Statewide, Illinois lost an estimated 263,780 in the same three years, or 2%, to 12,549,689.

The losses reflect larger demographic changes in recent times, including a shift in population from the Midwest to the South and West; Black migration from the Chicago area; and a lack of in-migration, demographics analyst Rob Paral said.

While the 2020 census counted responses from household surveys, the annual estimates between the 10-year counts are based in part on counting births, deaths, and moves in and out, using the number of tax returns and Medicare filings.

The numbers do not reflect the recent influx of 41,000 migrants bused and flown to Chicago since August 2022. Census methodology does not account for migrant arrivals. Immigrants are typically hard to count because they may be transient, may not speak English and may want to stay under the radar, researchers said.

Oak Lawn Mayor Terry Vorderer, for one, didn’t buy the new estimates, noting that his town has added new townhomes while not losing housing stock.

“I’m shocked,” he said. “I am skeptical of the numbers. I think our population is stable if not increasing. The town is very viable, new businesses are coming in all the time. Younger families are moving in and the schools are full.”

One force that may be at work, census researchers said, is the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the height of the pandemic, many people were working remotely and moving out from cities and suburbs to outlying areas. That phenomenon is cooling but still has an effect, researchers said.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office also threw water on the results, highlighting past faulty counts made by the Census Bureau.

“For the last decade, the narrative that Illinois is losing population was fed, by what turned out to be, inaccurate annual preliminary estimates,” Pritzker spokesperson Alex Gough said in a statement. “Illinois remains one of the most populous states in the nation and is on the rise.”

International migration — which has risen nationwide — has nearly tripled in Illinois since 2021, Gough said. The state is in the process of challenging census data to ensure it receives adequate federal funding for programs like Medicare, affordable housing and homeland security, he added.

Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration did not challenge the results, but instead linked population loss to decades of insufficient support for parts of the city. A lack of affordable housing, job losses and closed schools and mental health clinics have disproportionately hurt Black Chicagoans in particular, Johnson spokesperson Ronnie Reese said.

“The underlying causes of population loss in Chicago remain deeply rooted in historic disinvestment,” Reese said. “So when you ask questions related to population loss, you need to look at the resources in communities that traditionally keep residents tethered, and if there are none, therein lies the problem.”

Reese highlighted “investing in people” through Johnson’s new $1.25 billion borrowing plan earmarked for housing and workforce development as efforts to help people stay in Chicago.

Rising real estate prices have prompted some people in inner suburbs to sell and seek cheaper, larger housing farther out, said Matt Wilson, associate director of the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Crime and high taxes can also motivate people to move, and families in particular may seek safe communities with good schools.

“Most broadly, I think the quality of life that neighborhoods of the south side and south suburbs have to offer for the prices people have to pay to live in those areas has made people decide to leave,” Wilson wrote in an email to the Tribune. “Population decline and economic decline (are) mutually reinforcing and I think those areas are on trajectories of disinvestment and decline.”

In Oswego, 20-year-old resident Sam Terry just moved from Utah last month. He’s part of a team of about 40 workers who moved to a rented house to work installing solar panels for Sunrun.

“I love Oswego so far,” he said. “It’s a nice little area. You’ve got everything you need five minutes away. Everybody’s super cool, and it’s safe. We accidentally left the door open all day, and it was all good.”

Ray Hanania, a spokesman for Cicero, Bridgeview and Lyons, said the census typically misses undocumented immigrants. He blamed fear of crime for driving some people away.

Chicago remained the third largest city in the United States, behind New York and Los Angeles. It also lost the third most people, behind New York and Philadelphia.

While the nation’s fastest-growing cities continue to be in Sun Belt states, the new estimates show that some of the top gainers nationally are on the outskirts of metropolitan areas or in rural areas.