Illinois population
(Eric Allie/Illinois Policy political cartoon)

Illinoisans have been hearing their state is shrinking for five years now. But new figures released Thursday say something they’ve never heard.

From Walla Walla to Waco, there are 383 metropolitan statistical areas, or MSAs, across the country. Illinois is home base for 10 of them. From July 2017 to July 2018, all 10 shrank.

That’s never happened before. And many other figures from the new release are disturbing.

No other state in the lower 48 saw all of its metros shrink. Illinois joins Alaska, which saw both of its MSAs (Fairbanks and Anchorage) lose population, as the only states with red across the board.

The Chicago MSA saw the largest raw decline of any metro area in the nation over the year, shrinking by 22,000 people. Losing so much talent is undoubtedly a bad sign. But 22,000 people is 0.2% of that area’s population. In terms of the scale and speed of decline, other parts of Illinois stand among the nation’s worst-off.

Since 2010, the Decatur area has lost 5.5% of its population. That’s 7th worst among all metros nationwide.

The Danville area has lost 5.9% of its population over that time. Only four MSAs nationwide have seen worse declines.

The Census Bureau also released county-level data, where other stories emerge.

Alexander County in Southern Illinois, home of Cairo, has lost an astonishing 26% of its population since 2010. That’s the heaviest loss of any county in the nation.

Rockford’s Winnebago County has lost 3.7% of its residents since 2010. That’s only a trickle compared with Alexander. But among U.S. counties with over 200,000 people, it’s fifth-worst. St. Clair County’s loss of 3.4% comes in close behind at No. 8.

Of Illinois’ 102 counties, 86 lost population over the year. And 93 have lost population since 2010.

The overwhelming driver of this decline is simple: the flight of Illinoisans to greener pastures, and a lack of new bodies from elsewhere to replace them. An aging population means less natural growth from births outweighing deaths, which makes migration patterns matter even more.

In 2004, Federal Reserve economist Joshua Gallin published a methodology for estimating the drivers of state-to-state migration decisions, accounting for things like climate, age and labor market conditions. An Illinois Policy Institute analysis using the Gallin method shows the labor market has driven the majority of Illinois’ outmigration.

The state’s punishing tax climate and ominous mountain of debt have repelled new jobs and investment. People follow.

It’s important to note that this is the first local population data Illinoisans have seen covering the year after state lawmakers passed the largest permanent income tax hike in state history. By costing Illinois thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in economic activity, the 2017 income tax hikes made the Land of Lincoln a less attractive place to live.

Residents are again hearing the same song. Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s $3.4 billion “fair tax” hike will be on the docket when lawmakers return to Springfield at the end of the month. This old, failed formula won’t fix Illinois’ most pressing problem.

“Think Big” was one of the governor’s campaign slogans. State lawmakers need to extend that sentiment to something besides tax hikes.

Austin Berg is a writer for the Illinois Policy Institute. Austin can be reached at aberg@illinoispolicy.org.

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