Fact-check: No, Chicago’s Jobless Rate in 2021 Was Not Better Than ‘Any Large American City’

Mayor Lori Lightfoot proclaimed that Chicago’s unemployment rate in 2021 was better than New York and Los Angeles but it was not lower than most other large cities across the nation.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. (Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times)

On New Year’s Eve, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office released a 22-page list of her administration’s key achievements in 2021, including a striking claim about Chicago’s jobless rate.

“Chicago maintained the lowest unemployment rate through most of 2021 of any large American city,” the press release said, listing this fourth among more than 200 “key accomplishments” by her administration, ranging from economic development to racial justice reforms.

Since the statement seemed to contradict news reports throughout the year suggesting Chicago had among the worst jobless rates in the country — and was a claim Lightfoot repeated several times before — we decided to check.

A spokesman in Lightfoot’s office said the mayor’s claim is supported by statistics provided to the administration on jobless rates in the four most populated metropolitan areas — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston.

In an emailed response, Lightfoot Press Secretary Cesar Rodriguez cited a monthly Economic Recovery Dashboard, published by the city’s economic development arm World Business Chicago (WBC), as the source for the stats.

So we called the WBC, where an official said they get their numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

According to the BLS, the jobless rates in the WBC’s dashboard report are identical to the BLS numbers for metropolitan areas, which include suburbs.

The Chicago area’s unemployment rate did drop from 8.7% in January 2021 to 4.5% in November, the most recent month available, a decline that was seen nationwide.

In October, Lightfoot launched Accelerate Chicago — a program specifically aimed at tackling the city’s high unemployment rates caused by the COVID-19 crisis, according to Lightfoot’s Oct. 1 news release. At the time, unemployment in the city was at 5.1%.

Still, a review of jobless rates in the top four metropolitan areas shows Chicago faring better than New York and Los Angeles, but consistently worse than Houston.

Lightfoot made the claim several times throughout 2021, but we could find only one — at a press conference in April — where she specified it pertained to the top four most populated areas in the country.

“We have the lowest unemployment rate among the top four largest U.S. cities,” she said. “None of that happened by chance.”

In all her other statements we could find on the issue — including the New Year's Eve press release — Lightfoot opted for more broad language suggesting Chicago is doing better than all large cities.

“The numbers that I look at … tell me that Chicago’s got the lowest unemployment rate of any big city in the country,” Lightfoot said during a May 20 press conference.

At another event, on July 22, she used similar language.

“With a historic post-pandemic recovery on the horizon — and folks, we are coming back,” Lightfoot said during a ribbon cutting for Elm 551 at Parkside. “Every indicator says that's so both in terms of our numbers of tourism, our hotel occupancy, the fact that events are coming back to this city, our unemployment rate is the lowest of any major city in the country. Lots of great things are happening.”

Given that broader language and her repeated use of the phrase “any” major city, including in the press release, we reviewed BLS statistics beyond the top four metropolitan areas. With the exception of New York and Los Angeles, Chicago’s jobless rate was worse than any of the other top 15 metro areas.

Between January and November 2021, Chicago had an average unemployment rate of 7%, which was higher than 12 of the 15 metropolitan areas. The metro area with the lowest average unemployment rate over the 11-month period is Atlanta at 3.6%. Los Angeles had an average rate of 9%, making it the metropolitan area with the highest average unemployment rate.

Houston, with 2.3 million residents, is closest in population to Chicago, which has 2.7 million residents, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. Based on BLS data, Houston had lower unemployment rates compared to Chicago for six of the 11 months from January through November.

Even though Lightfoot’s office relied on BLS jobless rates for the metropolitan areas, which include suburbs, we also checked jobless rates only within the city limits.

A comparison of the 10 of the nation’s largest cities shows that half of them — San Jose, Calif., Phoenix, Dallas, San Antonio and Houston — had lower jobless rates than Chicago, based on 11 months of data available through BLS.

When considering only areas within city limits, Houston’s unemployment rate was better than Chicago’s in every available month, January through November.

Our ruling

Lightfoot said, “Chicago maintained the lowest unemployment rate through most of 2021 of any large American city.”

By any statistical measure, the statement is not accurate. Chicago’s unemployment rate in 2021 was consistently worse than other comparable cities, with the exception of only New York and Los Angeles. Even accepting the clarification from Lightfoot’s office that she meant only the four largest cities, it is still wrong.

We rate Lightfoot’s claim False.


FALSE — The statement is not accurate.

Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.

Sources

Unemployment rates, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

City populations, U.S. Census Bureau

World Business Chicago Economic Recovery Dashboard 

Press conference, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, April 29, 2021

Press conference, Mayor Lightfoot, May 20, 2021

“We've got the lowest unemployment rate of any major, big city, we've got the highest vaccination rate of any major city in the country.” WGN, June 11, 2021

Press conference, Mayor Lightfoot, July 12, 2021

Lightfoot remarks at Elm 551 grand opening, July 22, 2021