In Illinois, birth rates are down and more people are leaving the state. These demographic trends are putting pressure on Illinois policy makers to revitalize local economies.
Since 2010, Illinois lost more than 159,000 residents. That’s more than the entire population of Rockford. A study from Northern Illinois University’s Center for Governmental Studies found these losses are seen across the state. Researcher Norm Walzer says the trends leading to population loss are expected to continue.
“Because of declining birth rates and various things, we're going to be looking at fewer people in a lot of places,” Walzer forecasts. “Particularly in non-metro areas. I've had a long history in studying rural [populations] and I think we're concerned about the implications for the non-metropolitan areas, and what kind of strategies, if any, can be taken.
The largest projected population declines over the next five years are in western and southern Illinois. Researcher Brian Harger says creating robust job pipelines is a strategy to keep skilled workers from leaving the state.
“[In] the Sterling-Rock Falls area, some of the manufacturers tried a program of identifying high school students who were headed to college who wanted to major in engineering and created a program to support them either through tuition reimbursement, or helping them pay down student loan debt after they completed their degree,” Harger said.
Harger says other states are doing a better job creating sectors that attract mid-career or late career employees with specific industries tailored to their skills.
But Harger says efforts like these take planning.
“There is front-end investment with that, but again, you have to be creative because these are areas that are losing young people,” Harger said. “Since you're already taking people who have grown up in the area and have some connections and familiarity there. That's really your best market to target first, rather than trying to go and find people who don't live there.”
Walzer says the negative implications of out-migration come down to simple mathematics.
“Some of the projections are suggesting pretty substantial declines that may happen in the next five to 10 years,” Walzer said. “What that means is there are fewer people to pay taxes. So unless you're able to restructure the delivery system of services, then if you keep the same number of governments, and you keep the same number of employees, and you just advanced that by inflation, but there are fewer people to pay the bill, then the per capita or per household property taxes are going to be substantially higher.”
Harger says when there are fewer taxpayers, local governments suffer.
“They're going to have to make a lot of hard choices,” Harger said. “Because the costs are not necessarily going down. And you also have to factor in the pension burden for local governments, which is substantial. And that means less money available for all the other services. So people are paying more, but yet seeing less in terms of tangible services.”
Walzer says there may also need to be conversations that could prove controversial. Their research found between 2017 and 2018, only 16 of Illinois’ 102 counties experienced population growth.
“I think we have to consider restructuring in some way,” Walzer said. “Do we have to have 102 counties? I'm not picking on counties. But do we have to have 102 counties? I think now six or seven of them are below 5,000 population in the whole county. So do the two counties have to consolidate?”
If that were to happen, wouldn’t consolidation mean job cuts? Walzer says yes.
“But the alternative is our property taxes are going to go substantially higher,” Walzer said. “There's significant evidence now that property taxes are one factor leading to out-migration.”
Walzer says solutions will require residents and local leaders to work together.
“Whether it's local economic development, or whether it's restructuring your local governments or modernizing your governments, but it really all has to be locally driven,” Walzer said. “We can provide opportunities at the state level. [For example] we can now make cannabis legal, or something like that. But it has to be somebody at the local level that attracts a plant to process hemp that one of the local growers decides to grow. So it really is a local decision kind of thing.”
It's not all doom and gloom. Harger says Illinois has assets that could attract new jobs and residents.
“Certainly in a lot of high-tech industries,” Harger said. In Chicago we have a nice concentration of research and development organizations, both public and private. It’s concentrating on trying to take some of those resources, marshal them, and that some of that is being done to commercialize new technologies and commercialize them here.”
Harger says he hopes the research motivates communities.
“Number one, understand the nature of the problem they have, and then number two decide, ‘We're going to do something proactive to deal with it.’”
And even if the population is expected to keep going down, Walzer warns the state’s next big test is getting an accurate census count to ensure federal funds aren’t lost for the people who still live in Illinois.