In preparing for a presentation to be delivered before the ARS National Forum on Regional Stewardship this week, I was prepared to expound on the superior economic performance of Chicago in comparison to neighboring cities. After all, John Grimond’s recent review of Chicago for Economist magazine recently stated that “Chicago has come through deindustrialization looking shiny and confident.” I must admit that I, too, often characterize Chicago’s performance as robust, and I have observed that both Chicagoans and other Midwesterners believe this to be the case. Much to my surprise, however, in examining total payroll employment trends, I discovered that Chicago’s growth fell short of the neighboring East North Central (U.S. Census division) states region during the 1990s and since that time as well! And in comparison to the nation, Chicago’s per capita income has been flat to slightly declining. What gives?
I believe that part of the answer can be explained by the robust influx of immigrants to the Chicago area, along with the high birth rates of recent immigrants, which have made for a more complex story than the payroll employment and income trends suggest.
Owing to immigration, the Chicago area’s population growth has exceeded the surrounding region since the 1990s, as the chart below suggests. The Chicago metro area is now ranked fifth nationally in proportion of foreign-born population, adding 537,000 between 1990 and 2000—an expansion by over one-half. As of the 2000 U.S. Census, 17.5% of Chicago’s population were foreign born, many of them young families with children. And so, the rapid expansion of the region’s housing stock, revitalization of many older neighborhoods, and home appreciation have not been simply the figments of imagination or the heady boosterism by residents and observers of the Chicago region.
The growing immigrant composition of Chicago’s work force, and the way we measure it, may also explain part of its tepid payroll employment growth. Owing partly to language barriers, immigrants are more likely to be self-employed rather than work for a firm as a “payroll” employee. So too, to some extent, immigrant payroll employment may also tend to be casual or uncounted by government payroll employment surveys. An alternative way to estimate employment is conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) which takes some account of self-employed workers. In contrast to payroll employment, trends using BEA data (below) suggest that the Chicago area’s employment growth exceeded the East North Central states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin in the early years of this decade, and its performance during the 1990s also converges somewhat with the national average.