2015 Civic Research Forum: Finding New Approaches to Analyzing Urban Data

In partnership with World Business Chicago, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago hosted the Civic Research Forum on March 17, 2015. The forum was attended by researchers from a wide range of organizations and agencies throughout Chicago. It offered attendees an opportunity to discuss their current research and their positive and negative experiences with collecting and using data. Rob Paral of Rob Paral and Associates addressed the gathering, discussing his research on demographic trends in Chicago. Moreover, he described his research challenges given the  lack of some key historical data series, as well as the structure of available data sets and surveys. He also encouraged the audience to brainstorm innovative ways of using the accessible data.

Paral explained that his firm helps strengthen relationships between organizations and the broader communities they serve by providing data on the city’s social and economic conditions. He also shared that his firm gathers information on residents’ activities and attitudes. In his presentation, Paral focused on the income data he uses to study demographic trends in Chicago. While socioeconomic and demographic U.S. Census data are available for the 77 Chicago community areas (see map below) dating back to 1930, the data necessary to calculate median household income only go back to 1970. The limitations of these historical data hinder the potential to analyze income developments in Chicago over time (both at the neighborhood level and across demographics).


According to Paral, constructing income data for Chicago became even more difficult when the U.S. Census Bureau’s geographic grid, which includes the boundaries of blocks, tracts, and Public Use Microdata Areas (PUMAs) changed for the 2010 U.S. Census. The boundaries for these geographic units were redesigned in such a way that researchers could no longer aggregate PUMAs to match Chicago’s geography. Furthermore, beginning with the 2009–13 American Community Survey, it was no longer possible to select the Chicago-portions of census tracts for the few tracts that cover areas both inside and outside of the city limits, like it had been in previous versions. This change made it impossible to construct precise data for some individual community areas by combining data on the component census tracts.

Paral went on to discuss some of the questions related to income trends in Chicago that he is currently probing. He said his research focuses largely on the period between 1990 and 2010. Over this span, Illinois’s household income increased and then fell rapidly—a trend that was seen nationwide, though not to the degree it was within the state. According to Paral, the average household in Chicago earned 10% less income in 2010 than in 2000. Moreover, while nine out of every ten community areas had less income in 2010 than they did in 2000, some lost much more income than others. For instance, average household income declined by as much as 45% in some community areas, while other areas have seen an increase in income.

Looking at income trends of individual neighborhoods over time reveals interesting patterns about how wealth and poverty shift and consolidate geographically, Paral explained. In 1990, the wealthiest community areas were located in the far Northwest Side, the far Southwest Side, and the downtown and near-north areas. So, Chicago’s wealthiest neighborhoods were fairly dispersed back then. However, wealth became more geographically concentrated over time. In 2000, Chicago’s wealthiest areas were near the North Side and along the lakefront. And in 2008–12, this remained the case. In 1990, the poorest areas were largely consolidated in an area just west and south of the Loop (Chicago’s central business district). But over time, the poor moved farther away from the city center. In 2000, Chicago’s areas of greatest poverty were on the West and South Sides. And in 2008–12, this was still the case. The greatest income losses between 2000 and 2008–12 occurred on the far South Side, while the greatest income gains over that period happened in the “inner ring” areas near downtown (primarily just west and south of the Loop).

Paral said that while median income is the principal indicator he uses to analyze many trends, he also takes advantage of other measures of wealth provided by the U.S. Census Bureau—such as average and total household income—to get more robust views of wealth patterns and distribution across Chicago. Paral explained that by taking the ratio of average income to median income, he is able to assess the extent to which income distribution is skewed in an area—that is, how great the disparities are between the wealthiest and poorest residents in a given neighborhood. For example, a very high ratio of average income to median income suggests that there are some very wealthy residents pulling up the average (even if a majority of that neighborhood’s residents are poor).

As Paral shared, using innovative ways of combining available data, such as this method of studying the ratio of average to median income, has allowed him to examine potential weaknesses in current policies that are based on more-conventional income data and analysis. For example, he questioned the use of census tracts to determine how children are placed into public Selective Enrollment High Schools within Chicago. The current policy assigns each census tract to a socioeconomic tier, where 1 is the poorest and 4 is the wealthiest. The policy is designed to give children of poorer tiers a better opportunity of enrolling in a strong public school. However, some very poor children live in the same tract as very wealthy children. This means the average income is skewed up by these wealthy families, decreasing the chances the poor children have of being accepted into a strong public high school. Paral mentioned several census tracts where this pattern is especially problematic, such as those where there are large public housing buildings nearby very wealthy homes. In such tracts, the gap in median income between one (poor) subsection and another (rich) one can be over $100,000. Yet, because both poor and wealthy households are located in the same census tract, their children have an equal likelihood of entering the city’s best public schools.

The forum ended with the attendees sharing the research they are working on, the data they use, and any challenges they are facing. This portion of the program gave researchers the opportunity to learn of new data sources and approaches to analysis and to meet others in the Chicago research community. The forum sponsors hoped that innovation and collaboration among the attendees would eventually yield more-productive research in the coming years.