It’s no secret Chicago isn’t the industrial powerhouse it once was. While the city has sustained growth in its downtown, the rest of the city hasn’t recovered from the loss of middle-class jobs on the South and West Sides — and it’s a problem.
Chicago has lost more than 20,000 residents since 2014, according to U.S. Census Bureau Data. Yet, in the last decade, nearly 65,000 jobs have become available in downtown Chicago, according to a Chicago Central Area Committee report.
Companies such as VividSeats, GrubHub and Morningstar have flooded the Loop, competing for new talent and hiring college grads across the country, according to Built in Chicago, an online community for Chicago start-ups and tech companies. With all the job growth in the Loop, why is Chicago still losing so many people?
It all starts with the loss of working class jobs in the city. When Chicago’s population peaked at just over 3.5 million in 1960, there were roughly 435,000 manufacturing jobs in the city. Now, only 63,000 of these manufacturing jobs remain, according to a 2019 article by the Chicago Sun-Times. Many of these jobs were on the South and West Side of the city.
As manufacturing jobs have become automated or outsourced to other countries, Tech companies have come in and taken over. While this phenomenon isn’t unique to Chicago, the city has struggled to keep certain segments of its population through this change in industry.
The exit of manufacturing jobs has coincided with the exit of African Americans from Chicago. In the last 40 years, Chicago has lost almost 350,000 African-American residents — more than any other city in the U.S., according to a University of Illinois at Chicago report. High unemployment rates are cited as a driving factor of the exodus.
To keep Chicago from losing more of its African American population, investment in job growth on the South and West Sides must be the city’s primary focus. It would bring middle class opportunity back to a city that’s rapidly losing this part of its identity.
Known as a blue-collar city, Chicagoans take pride in their industrial roots. Generation after generation, many have flocked to Chicago looking for opportunity and a decent living. Today, however, the children of those who once flocked to the city seeking are leaving Chicago — seeking better opportunity elsewhere.
Recognizing this issue in the city, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot proposed a $750 million into a project called “INVEST South/West,” according to the Office of the Mayor. The project looks to invest in 10 neighborhoods on the South and West Sides — funding better education programs, human services, more affordable housing and economic development.
For the project to be successful, its focus must be on jobs and workforce development programs to address issues of unemployment in the city. Workforce development programs are anything that targets job training and small business development through government investment.
In 2016, Charlotte, North Carolina invested in such workforce development programs — successfully creating new opportunities for its middle class population, according to the Rose Center Equitable Economic Development Program. Thousands of individuals were provided with new jobs as the city’s population has continued to grow. Milwaukee, Boston and Austin, Texas are all implementing similar programs, according to the Rose Center.
Lightfoot said she wants to return the population of Chicago to 3 million residents from its current mark of 2.7 million, according to a speech she gave to the Economic Club of Chicago in December. To achieve this, the focus must be on the city’s African American middle class — rather than the tech giants of the loop.
All it takes is an ‘L’ ride across town to see the divide between the South and West Sides and the rest of the city. This divide is a reflection of the city and has, in a way, come to define Chicago. Some investment in these areas can go a long way in restoring opportunity for the city’s middle class. At the end of the day, Chicago wouldn’t be Chicago without it.