Watch Chicago’s middle class vanish before your very eyes

Note: I owe both the concept for this measurement of income segregation and much of the actual data – all of it, except for 2012 – to Sean Reardon and Kendra Bischoff, who wrote a series of wonderful papers on the subject and then were kind enough to send me a spreadsheet of their data from Chicago a while ago. The maps, however, are mine, as is all the data from 2012, and any mistakes in them or in the interpretation of the data is entirely my responsibility.

I think one reason I’ve felt less than compelled by Chicagoland, CNN’s reasonably well-made documentary series, is that its tale-of-two-cities narrative is so worn, so often repeated, that it’s become a little dull. Not the actual fact of inequality – which only seems to cut deeper over time – but its retelling.

In fact, I think the point has long passed at which simply repeating the story of Chicago’s stratification is equivalent to fighting it. For a lot of people, in my experience, it’s the opposite: an opportunity for distancing, for washing of hands. It’s a ritual in which we tell each other that this is the way it’s always been – The Gold Coast and the Slum was written about already well-entrenched institutions, after all, over three-quarters of a century ago – that these facts somehow seep out of the ground here, as much a part of the city as the lake, and that as a result there’s really nothing we can do about it.

But this obscures much more than it clarifies. Inequality has always been a part of Chicago – as it has always been a part of the United States, and a part of humanity – but the forms it has taken, and the severity of those many forms, have changed in truly dramatic ways. Take, for example, today’s monolithic segregation of African Americans: at the turn of the last century, black Chicagoans were less segregated than Italians, and not because Italians were then hyper-segregated.

Moreover, decisions made by people in the city have played, and continue to play, a huge role in determining what those changes look like. Had Elizabeth Wood received any serious support from white residents or their elected representatives – instead of meeting Klan-like violent resistance – the history of racial integration, economic integration, and public housing in this city would be very, very different. This isn’t to say that national and global factors aren’t important, since they obviously are. But neither do we lack responsibility.

Anyway, this is all by way of introducing the following maps: their goal is not merely to depress you (you’re welcome!), but to suggest just how dramatically the reality of Chicago’s “two cities” has changed over the last few generations, how non-eternal its present state is, and that a happier alternate reality isn’t just possible, but actually existed relatively recently.

I feel relatively comfortable telling the story of how Chicago came to be so segregated by race; I’m much humbler about my ability to explain this, except inasmuch as the ever-widening ghetto of the affluent could not exist without, yes, radically exclusionary housing laws, and I will take that up separately in another post. In the meanwhile, I’ll take a page from Ta-Nehisi Coates and ask you all, if you have some background in this, to talk to me like I’m stupid: what does the literature say about growing economic segregation? Who and what should I be reading?

One last piece: the obvious and immediate reaction to these maps is to see them as a direct consequence of rising income inequality. There is some truth to that, but the researchers from which much of this data came have already discovered that income segregation has actually risen faster than inequality. So that’s not the end of the story.

Anyway, here you go: the disappearance of Chicago’s middle-class and mixed-income neighborhoods since 1970, measured by each Census tract’s median family income as a percentage of the median family income for the Chicago metropolitan region as a whole.






34 thoughts on “Watch Chicago’s middle class vanish before your very eyes

  1. This is mostly my own analysis, but the increasing level of economic segregation in Chicago today is partially an after-effect of the racial segregation patterns that developed decades ago. Since the 1970s, there have been two overall neighborhood trends: persistent middle-class flight in the predominantly black neighborhoods of the South and West sides, and gentrification of predominantly white or racially mixed neighborhoods on the North side. The far Northwest and Southwest sides, as well as some outliers like Hyde Park and Bridgeport, have not greatly been affected by either trend and have remained stable, but most other neighborhoods have been pulled toward one end of the economic spectrum over the past 40 years. Straight Dope Chicago actually did a similar analysis at the examines the overall trends by neighborhood.

    For example, consider the 1970 map. At this time, racial transition was in full swing in many Chicago neighborhoods, and it is only around 1980 that the “black ghetto” stopped expanding (you can go to to see this decade by decade). There are many neighborhoods such as South Shore, Avalon Park, Roseland, and Austin that were virtually all-white in the 1960 and had large black populations by 1970. However, these neighborhoods had a more gradual transition compared to Woodlawn or North Lawndale, and the white residents were generally replaced by middle-class black residents who could afford to buy homes in the area. You can see this in the 1970 map, where many predominantly black census tracts are grey.

    However, starting with the 1980 map, many of these middle-class black neighborhoods became poorer. I’m not exactly sure why this happened, but my guess is that they were the victims of neglect and received worse public services and had fewer businesses, higher crime rates, and worse schools than before. As a result, they became worse places to live than economically similar white neighborhoods, and middle-class black residents began moving to the suburbs. Consequently, home prices in these neighborhoods decreased, and lower-middle-class or poor residents from Bronzeville or similar neighborhoods moved into these formerly middle class areas. You can see this in the 1980 map, where a few census tracts in South Shore and Roseland have turned from grey to orange and almost all of Bronzeville has turned from orange to red. The trend has only continued since then. There are still a few solidly middle-class black neighborhoods such as Calumet Heights and the eastern part of Ashburn, but they are much fewer than they were in 1970.

    In contrast, the opposite trend of gentrification has happened on the North side. If you look at the 1970 map, there are only a few census tracts in the “urban core” of Chicago that are upper-middle-class, mostly in the Gold Coast and Lincoln Park. However, starting in the 1980s and continuing to the present day, members of the “creative class” have chosen to move to neighborhoods near downtown. The results, including an increased housing demand and a cohort of people willing to pay large amounts of money to live in these neighborhoods, are well-documented. However, the creative class has generally moved into areas that were already livable and racially mixed, even if they were poor. Thus gentrification has only affected some neighborhoods in the “urban core,” creating some neighborhoods that are extremely wealthy and not impacting others.

    In summary, racial segregation has leaded to economic segregation because it has made some neighborhoods more desirable to live in than others, even if they have similar economic profiles. Middle-class neighborhoods that are white or racially mixed have become more desirable and have therefore become wealthier, and middle-class black neighborhoods have become less desirable and have therefore become poorer. A plan to fight economic segregation must deal with exclusionary practices that prevent poor people from living in desirable areas, but it should also try to make neglected areas more desirable so that more middle-class people want to live in them.

    It would be interesting to do a similar analysis for the entire Chicago metropolitan area. You would probably find more wealthy census tracts in 1970, primarily in the North Shore suburbs. You would also find more middle-class areas with majority black populations today, primarily in the South suburbs. I wonder if the overall level of economic segregation in the Chicago metro area has changed as much as it has changed in the city.

    1. Yeah, I suspect that’s mostly right. I’m curious about the interplay of anti-black policy and deindustrialization: they’re both obviously pretty devastating, but I haven’t read enough about how that actually played out in Chicago or elsewhere. Mostly I’ve read about real estate and housing, which is bad enough, but obviously not the whole story. There’s a book about deindustrialization in Philly called “The Problem of Jobs” – have you read it?

      The kind of dynamics you’re talking about are explained in a great deal of theoretical and empirical detail in “Great American City” by Robert Sampson; if you haven’t read it, you ought to.

      1. One trend has been declining public-sector unemployment, at all levels, which has fallen on the black middle class in Chicago pretty hard, anecdotally and I think to a certain extent measured. (The last time I looked at it, I looked at BLS data for public employment, and IIRC it was quite concentrated in African-American majority neighborhoods.) Private trade-labor unions were for a long time largely closed to blacks, so the public sector picked up a lot of the slack. One paper I’ve been meaning to read is “Revisiting shibboleths of race and urban economy: Black employment in manufacturing and the public sector compared, Chicago 1950-2000” by Virginia Parks, but I need to track it down.

      2. Hi Daniel, you might be interested in Chicago’s 1971 anti-4+1 zoning ordinance. It basically made cheap housing illegal. As do piles of other down-zoning and landmarking ordinances.

        Also, UChicago Law’s IJ Clinic on Entrepreneurship catalogs how Chicago’s regulatory field crushes low-income entrepreneurs.

        Drop me a line to discuss.

    2. The trend of Black middle class communities becoming poorer is one of the more under reported phenomenons. It’s been going on in cities for a long time. I came across some readings about Baltimore segregation and what is interesting is that around the early 1900s there weren’t hard and fast racial residential laws. Many neighborhoods were mixed what people Black and White of some means tried to avoid was living in proximity to poor slums because of the very real fear of disease. They fled Black dominated slums and they fled White ethnic dominated ones in equal measure.

      What happened though as poor Black migrants poured into cities from the South they often would move to more stable existing Black or mixed race communities. Keep in mind many of these people were either ex-slaves or a generation removed with little education. Houses would be carved up, seedier services would spring up and in no time the neighborhood would decline. Whites would flee as well as Blacks with means. For Whites at some point they just said to heck with this and they demanded clear lines of demarcation in housing by race.

      I think there is a similar thing at play in Chicago, a city I’ve never been to. Poor Blacks move into an area the schools decline, violence increase and existing middle class Blacks leave which gives the impression on maps that there is increasing income inequality. The reality is the population has changed but since it’s within race it’s not always detectable.

      1. Yeah, I think a big issue is that black middle-class neighborhoods have never been insulated from high-crime, high-poverty neighborhoods the way white middle-class neighborhoods have been, mostly because of segregation, so there’s much more pressure for the black middle class to keep moving out towards the suburbs.

  2. Fascinating stuff (especially because I’m planning a move to Chicago soon). A few thoughts: I’m intrigued by the neighborhoods on the fringes. Some are consistently upper class, others consistently lower class, but a few of them undergo major shifts. I’d like to study those more in depth. I’m also wondering what the median income was at each of these points, mostly out of curiosity. Finally, does this follow national trends, or it is unique to Chicago in its drastic nature?

    Great piece!

    1. Awesome! Added to the list. Anything else? Books, authors? Slowly, slowly, I’m going to get myself a Ta-Nehisi Coates-style comment section that will teach me all I want to know…

  3. Hey great post! This maps are great. The link to the 1980 enlarged map takes you to the 1970 map though, fyi.

  4. A couple things to look at:
    I think the closing of the industrialized sites (such as South Works) in the Southeast end of Chicago had a major impact on South Shore and Chatham. You lose a lot of stable middle-class jobs there, that has a cascading affect on the supporting jobs around there. Something that you can see outside the city is that North Shore suburbs, Schaumburg and the area surrounding O’Hare are major job centers, but also very very hard to access from the South Side, by transit or by car. The South Side of the city and the South Suburbs don’t have nearly as many job centers there anymore, certainly less than existed in the 70s. This was a reason so many South Side and South Suburban politicians want the Peotone Airport built: so it be a new major job center.

    1. Yeah, I think that’s right. I’m really looking forward to doing a lot of reading about this – William Julius Wilson’s “When Work Disappears,” Patrick Sharkey’s “Stuck in Place,” and “The Problem of Jobs” are on the list. Is anyone familiar with Massey’s work on this? Does it address deindustrialization?

      1. I think you hit the nail on the head with Wilson’s work. He was at the Harris School when I was there and made very convincing cases about jobs. Elizabeth Warren’s presentation at Berkeley provides interesting insight into risk shifting and middle class balance sheet/income flows over the period too.

        Macro trends that hit the US over this period:
        1. Leaving the gold standard was the catalyst for financialization of the US economy. Banks create credit out of nothing and charge interest on productive citizens and companies–a massive wealth transfer machine.
        2. Trade policy – Deindustrialization did not occur in a vacuum. Labor union power in the 70’s led corporations/plutocrats to lead a tariff elimination effort globally that opened the doors to slave labor wages and environmental degradation.
        3. A collapse of net public investment occurred during this period too. Public investment crowds in private investment and lowers total factor costs benefiting citizens and private capital.
        4. The rise of broad oligopolies protected by state/federal regulation occurred too. Extracting wealth built by the middle class via regulatory capture has become pure science for the large corporations in the US. The top .01% being the primary beneficiaries. Healthcare, finance and education plus the permanent warfare state fit the bill.

        For solutions look to the Chicago Plan and the American School of Economics.

    2. The Peotone airport is not economically feasible / compatible to the existing transportation infrastructure. A lot of fat cat politicians and their friends purchased all of the land in the area thinking that they would get Jesse Jr. to push it thru with federal funding. These greedy folks are now stuck with an asset that continues to lack any bids. There is no natural synergy to support an economically viable airport there. Gary Indiana airport is functional, maybe 15 miles to the northeast of Peotone and it HAS existing transportation infrastructure and it is barely holding on. If you have an educated work force, you can then attract jobs. Look at the job growth / revival in Ireland from 1980 to 2005. Government tax incentives coupled with a highly educated and motivated population built the ‘Celtic Tiger’.

  5. I am disturbed by the massive increase in <45% median income areas since 1970. There is very little red in the 1970 map, but it dominates 2012. Is this an artifact of the growth of a social service/no-income population, or a steady erosion in the buying power of minimum wage jobs? Or did 1970 Chicago have just as many people at <45% median income, but they lived in mixed-income neighborhoods?

    I doubt that the metro area outside Chicago city limits had extreme poverty in 1970.

    1. There were plenty of areas of extreme poverty outside the city limits in 1970. Areas of Waukegan, North Chicago, Evanston, Calumet City, Winthrop Harbor and Gary Indiana come to mind. I lived next to one of them at the time.

  6. that’s “The Change They Believe In.”

    The Chicago “FIRE” Industries (Finance, Insurance, & Real Estate) paid politicians to help them make millions and millions and millions by moving poor folks out of certain areas and replacing low income housing with their “urban renewal projects.”

    1. Just look at the old ‘skid row’ area on W. Madison street just west of downtown. In the early 1980’s, insider deals were made to change to landscape to the existing ‘Presidential Towers’ multi- block high end residential complex. Never mind the political deals by developers that transformed / pushed out the low income strata the areas in and around the Cabrini Green public housing complex on the near northside…

  7. It would be interesting to see this data paired with other demographic data — such as percent of single parent households.

  8. Is the figure used for the metropolitan area median adjusted for inflation so that the basis is the same for every map or is it nominal? 45% of $100K is better than 200% of $10K.

    1. I’m not sure I understand – the figures are simply based on the ratio of tract-level income to the metro area median of that particular year.

  9. Daniel:

    Serious question: What number did you use for Metro Median Family income?

    I find a Median Family Income number for 2012 of $74,509 (ACS 5-year est), which gives a 45% value of $33,529. Even if we round that up to $35,000, that leaves 161 census tracts with Median Family Income below 45% of Metro MFI–which is 20.2% of the 796 (in the list I accessed) census tracts in Chicago.

    Up the scale, there are then (income numbers again rounded up a bit):

    162 census tracts bt 45 and 60% ($45,000)
    124 census tracts bt 60 and 75% ($56,000)
    199 census tracts bt 75 and 125% ($94,000)
    150 census tracts above 125% (max = $304,666(!!))
    broken down to 43 up to 150% ($112k); 56 up to 200% ($150k), and 51 above.

    I think that almost all people who have HHI of $50k plus–even in Chicago–think of themselves as “middle class”, as does virtually everyone up to 112k, (and probably up to 150K–but I’d credit a “get over yourself” response to that). So the “middle class” of contemporary Chicago is greater than a 75-125 band, and would at least encompass ~65% to 135%–50k to $100k, which covers the MFI for 284 of the city’s census tracts, with 375 below, and 137 above.

    It would still present a stark map, bc the census tracts in the poor areas are (generally speaking) relatively larger.

    Also, much of the downward shift in many of those sub-45% tracts is the result of most everyone with the means leaving–many, and perhaps most, of those census tracts are now in their 5th decade of 10%+ population shrinkage per decade.

    1. Yeah, ~$75k sounds right. And yeah, there’s obviously no hard and fast way to cut off who’s middle class and who isn’t. If you want to include the lightest pink, I won’t argue. But even so, I think it’s useful to see how many neighborhoods have fallen from middle-middle to lower-middle.

  10. Daniel,

    This is a pretty interesting article that covers the same issues that you covered in this piece, although it expands on some facets.

    I would also recommend reading Thomas J Sugrue’s “The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit” and Arnold Hirsch’s “The Making of the Second Ghetto: Race and Housing in Chicago 1940-1960” for some historical information (dating back to the early 20th Century).


  11. Daniel,

    Great article on this subject. I attempted long ago to do some research into how the welfare system and minimum wage impacted wealth distribution. Can you do something similar to this but in conjunction with this add in a timeline of major welfare acts enacted by the state and feds? Did the situation improve or get worse following the enacting of those? For instance, there were several minimum wage jumps in the 1970s. The income rates fell dramatically during that time even though an attempt to “create an even playing field” was done. Aside from the white flight, there are other factors at work here. I am willing to bet the increase social net has had an overall negative impact on cities like Chicago. I’ve never seen a study use information you’ve provided along with the affects of major welfare acts on society as a whole or at least on income distribution. The 1970 to now have proven to be a boom for welfare in general. It may be perception but a graphic showing increases in welfare related spending versus whether people’s situation improved following it may be a great research project. Thank you for doing the work on this one!

  12. Mr. Hertz,

    Your data is flawed, for the following reasons.

    First, your definition of ‘poor’ or ‘middle class’ is relative to the year of the data set. Like inflation, it must be pegged to some stake in the ground. Let 1970 be that stake; re-cast the data; how does it look then? Having grown up in the Chicago area, anecdotally the City’s quality has increased, especially in the west and south and southwest, since the 1960s. I have great difficulty reconciling that personal observation with a narrow data set.

    Second, you do not correct for population density. What is the total number of families in each area, with family income between 75% and 125% of median income? It’s entirely possible that, while the RED area is increasing, that the percentage of total families living in these areas is dropping; their density is decreasing. Unless you compensate for this variable, you cannot make the conclusion you seem inclined to take.

    Third, family income is not a variable which is distributed normally (in the mathematical sense here of the word ‘normal’) around the median. I imagine that’s why you chose to use median and not mean income. But, your color gradation does not, in my opinion, account enough for this fact. The width of the gradations below 100% should be roughly logarithmically smaller than the graduations above 100%.

  13. Daniel,
    A lot of poor were concentrated in a very small area in the public housing. How does the destruction of the State street corridor affect the map?

  14. I really like your maps and find them very interesting to analyze.

    One suggestion is to consider developing dot density maps to reflect the absolute number of people rather than just the percentages. I think the simplest approach is to simply keep the percentages with the same colors but show a dot for a set number (i.e., 100 or 1000) people living in the census tract.

    I did some mapping on a similar project a few years back. I found it useful to map using a dot density map in order to show number of people rather than percentages.

    One reason is census tracts can vary greatly in both the number of people and geographic size. For instance, O’Hare and Lake Calumet are very large census tracts with very few people living in them. The flip side is some downtown census tracts are very small but with large number of people living in them.

    A second reason is the City’s density has changed significantly through the years. For instance, the Loop has gained significant population while areas such as Robert Taylor has lost significant population.

  15. You should read the Nobel price (economics) winner Thomas C. Schelling’s book “Micromotives and Macrobehavior”, Ch 4: Sorting and Mixing: race and sex. It’s an old classic that is going to blow your mind if you haven’t had the opportunity to have studied it before.

  16. I too am concerned about inequality due to its wider effect on society. Three other issues to consider:

    1. Does “income” include transfer payments (Social Security, Welfare, SNAP, etc)? Many studies of “income” do not. Transfer payments have been in a clearly rising trend over these decades.

    2. Because you are comparing income in Chicago neighborhoods to metropolitan region Chicago income, might these maps just be telling a story of lower income in Chicago relative to suburban income?

    3. It would be interesting to see the maps for decades preceding the 1970s. If they exist, did they show a similar pattern of income equality up until the 1970s?

    I agree with an earlier comment that the rapid expansion of income/wealth in Chicagoland to the northwest due to O’Hare’s dominance, plus a reduction in manufacturing south of 95th Street, is a big driver of these maps. People quickly flock to where jobs are. When the jobs disappear, the process of decline evolves much more slowly.

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