New census numbers debunk the common perception of exodus (At least for Chicago and Suburbs)

Here in Illinois, there is the common perception that the state faces a crisis of mass exodus due to high property taxes, political corruption, and fiscal challenges. While these problems certainly do exist, recent U.S. Census data indicates the common perception may not be as serious as the reality.

First, it is true that Illinois has lost population the last decade. It went from having 12,830,632 residents to now 12,812,508. However, this represents only a 0.1 percent population loss. Moreover, the slight population loss is significantly less then what is was the last two decades.

What is also interesting is that the city of Chicago’s population actually increased, although slightly by 1.6 percent. This is also in contrast to the beginning of the last decade, where the city lost nearly 7 percent of it’s population.

So if the entire state only lost about 0.1 percent of it’s population and Chicago’s population increased, where are all the losses coming from?

The short answer is downstate. The Census numbers indicate that downstate counties experienced the greatest swing in population. Figure 1 below illustrates this trend.

Figure 1: Illustration exported via U.S. Census Bureau

Illinois is home to 102 counties. The list of counties on the right hand side of the illustration is filtered via percent change in population. About 86 of the state’s 102 counties experienced a net loss in population. However, nearly everyone of these counties are outside of Chicagoland.

The county that lost the most in population (as a percent) was by far Alexander County, located at the southernmost tip of the state. Bordering Missouri and Kentucky, the county is home to Cairo, a once thriving port community located along the along the Mississippi River. Today, it is home to only 5,240 people.

The story is indeed different for the more densely populated communities, such as the suburbs and college towns. Figure 2 below filters the list of counties by those who gained the most via percent change.

Figure 2: Illustration exported via U.S. Census Bureau

As for the collar counties, all experienced a population gain from the previous decade. Consultant Frank Calabrese has some of those numbers below.

While we can look more closely at population and demographic trends and any outliers in our data set, a general analysis at the recent U.S. Census data truly reveals a tale of two states. If you live in the Northeast part of the state, you are better connected to greater economic opportunities compared to downstate counterparts (even despite the high property taxes). For those who live south of I-80, economic opportunities and transportation access is vastly more limited.

The history of the state of Illinois has long included narratives on the divide between north and south, urban versus rural. This divide has helped perpetuate falsehoods that the majority of tax revenue collected downstate is disproportionally allocated to the more wealthy and populated northeast, further contributing to the economic disparities of the region.

While academic studies have continuously proved this notion false, the sentiment remains strong. The U.S. Census data has shown that downstate Illinois is hurting. To its residents, the population loss, just like the contraction of economic opportunities, is very much apparent. This hardship has led to many residents to generalize that their government continues to not hear their voices and address their concerns. Moreover, many feel that their region has for far too long been neglected. The Census numbers only add fuel to the rhetoric. Let’s hope that this decade brings additional investment and reform to reverse the course.

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