Chicago's Polish, Irish Populations Stabilize

Demographers note two ethnic groups begin to hold their own after decades of decline

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IT won't go down in the annals of grand demographic shifts. But two groups of white ethnics in Chicago are causing a bit of a stir among demographers. The surprise: The city's Polish and Irish populations appear to be holding their own after three decades of decline.

``Things have really stabilized in the city,'' says Marie Bousfield, the city's demographer, who noticed the trend when looking at births from mothers of Irish and Polish descent.

From 1979 to 1981, live births among Chicago Poles averaged 2,025 a year. By the 1985-87 period, the number had jumped to 2,131 - a 5.2 percent increase. The Irish, meanwhile, held almost steady during the same periods - 1,996 vs. 1,957 - a decline of only 1.9 percent. Germans, Italians, and British births all fell by 4.8 percent or more during the same period.

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There are many possible reasons for the shift: immigration (legal and illegal), the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, and an echo from the baby boom. What is clear is that the election of one black mayor and the appointment of another did not cause these two large ethnic communities to move out of the city as many had predicted.

``Certainly, we did not see the massive white flight when Harold [Washington] was first elected,'' says William McCready, associate director of the Public Opinion Laboratory at Northern Illinois University.

Mr. Washington became the city's first black mayor in 1983. At the same time, Chicago's Polish community has increased. A major reason is the influx of young immigrants as the political and economic situation worsened in Poland. In 1987, 5,818 Poles officially immigrated to the US, almost a third of them listing Illinois as their destination, according to the US Immigration and Naturalization Service. Others have come as official refugees, and some are here illegally, although no one knows how many.

In all, perhaps some 30,000 to 40,000 Poles have come to Chicago since 1980, estimates Eva Wierzynska, an immigration case worker here for US Rep. Dan Rostenkowski. Though there are no records to prove it, it appears that many of the new immigrants are in their child-bearing years.

Many of the factors working for Chicago's Polish also appear to hold true for its Irish.

Both communities are heavily Catholic, which would tend to keep birthrates high, says Bob Burns, editor and publisher of the Irish American News, a monthly based in suburban Chicago. Also, Irish are immigrating legally and illegally to the US.

``There's been a lot of to-do about all these new Irish that are coming over,'' Mr. Burns says. But ``we are not keeping up with New York or Boston. Those Eastern cities are getting more of the new Irish than we are in Chicago.''

Many of the births have occurred in old-line Irish neighborhoods on the city's southwest side. The movement there is striking, Ms. Bousfield says. Usually, the higher a neighborhood's educational level, the less likely it is to produce children. Yet, in two of the three southwest side neighborhoods where a lot of Irish births are occurring, the educational attainment is relatively high.

More than half of the people who live in the neighborhood of Beverly, for example, have some college education. Yet its fertility rate ranks in the top 25 percent of Chicago neighborhoods. The Morgan Park neighborhood ranks almost as high in education and has a slightly higher fertility rate.

Demographers can only speculate on why this is taking place.

``What we are going to see is the next wave of the baby boom,'' says Mr. McCready. And perhaps these stable Irish communities are already feeling the impact as Irish baby-boomers move in, he adds.

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