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Each Tuesday, the State Journal-Register business editor, Tim Landis, joins WUIS' Bill Wheelhouse to discuss the latest business news in central Illinois.Airs Tuesdays at 4:45 PM and Wednesdays at 7:45 AM on 91.9 and the stream at WUIS.org.

Two Conversations On Illinois' Population Loss

Statehouse exit sign
Brian Mackey
NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

Sean Crawford talks to Tim Landis of The State Journal-Register about the latest census numbers, and Brian Mackey interviews economist Natalie Davila and tax policy consultant Mike Klemens about their unique analysis of migration in and out of Illinois.


BRIAN MACKEY: It’s Illinois Edition. I’m Brian Mackey.

If you follow Illinois politics, you’ve probably heard some version of this argument:

GOV. BRUCE RAUNER: "Last year, last year we lost more people than any other state in America."

SEN. CHRISTINE RADOGNO: “Jobs are leaving Illinois. And guess what? People are following them."

SEN. CHAPIN ROSE: “Has anybody ever done a deep dive to see who it is that’s leaving?"

MACKEY: Yes, senator, they have. But we’ll come back to that a little later.

MACKEY: Today we’re talking about the population of Illinois — the facts, the spin, and more facts. We’ll hear how difficult it is to figure out who’s leaving Illinois — and talk to a pair of researchers who've found a new way of answering that question using tax data. We’ll also hear how politicians are using population trends to advance their agendas — that’s the spin.

MACKEY: But first, the latest facts from the Census bureau. For that, I’m handing it off to Sean Crawford, who spoke about this with Tim Landis, business editor of Springfield’s daily newspaper, The State Journal-Register:

CRAWFORD: “Tim, the latest numbers you’ve been looking at show there is a drop in population expected for towns like Springfield, many other similar sized communities throughout the state."

LANDIS: Well the Census bureau last week released their estimates for 2015. We took a look at that for Springfield and all the other similar sized communities around Illinois. There was one exception to the population loss trend, and that was in Champaign-Urbana, where the Census Bureau showed the population up about 3 percent from 2010 to 2015. Springfield was down a little less than 1 percent; the losses were greater in towns like Peoria and Rockford, Bloomington-Normal, even, where they lost some manufacturing jobs in the last couple of years. So yes, this is part of a larger stated and even Midwest trend."

CRAWFORD: “And that probably makes it more concerning to people. It’s not just one snapshot in time shows you’re up or down a few percentage points. This seems to be just be something that’s becoming more on a regular basis."

LANDIS: “It really has. This happened for at least the last two censuses. Now there’s been come population growth, but the issue, as you know, becomes Illinois is not growing as fast as some other states, certainly in the south and southwest, so that becomes an issues of Congressional representation, certainly. But then the larger issues is some of the economic development and demographic experts we talk (say) when you are losing population, it’s harder to attract jobs. When it’s harder to attract jobs, it’s harder to attract populations. So it becomes a circular issue, is how it was described to us. One of the ways they’re hoping to address this, certainly in central Illinois, is to try to keep more Millennials both at home and bring Millennials in from outside to stabilize these population trends.”

'How do you go about attracting Millennials -- or at least keeping those people here that grow up here?'

  CRAWFORD: “And that all sounds good. But is there any plan? How do you actually do that? How do you go about attracting Millennials — or at least keeping those people here that grow up here?"

LANDIS: “Well one of the ways certainly in Springfield is they’ve really put an emphasis on health care, and by reaching out through high schools and local colleges to connect with these young workers, would-be workers as early as possible. Show them what sorts of opportunities are available. But one of the things you hear from demographers about Millennials in particular is they’re looking for an urban experience. That doesn’t necessarily mean just living downtown, but they’d like to be able to bike and walk, live in that sort of urban environment. So Springfield is among the communities that have been working on downtown residential development, and also providing those amenities. So what they will tell you: Yes, Millennials want good jobs, and that’s what will keep them here, but they also want a certain lifestyle, and a lot of communities around the state have been working on those kinds of developments."

CRAWFORD: “Well you mentioned Champaign-Urbana was one of those that bucked the trend — about 3 percent population growth over this period of time. Is it doing anything different, that you can tell, that other towns are not?"

LANDIS: “Well certainly they have one of the largest universities in the state, the University of Illinois, and that provides a stabilizing effect. And thee’s been some research projects that have been approved there in the last few years so a lot of it, without getting into a lot of depth in these census numbers, appears to be focused on what’s happening at University of Illinois. Now certainly they have some private initiatives underway over there as well."

CRAWFORD: “Alright, that's Tim Landis. He’s the business editor for The State Journal-Register."

MACKEY: And that was Sean Crawford. I’m Brian Mackey. This is Illinois Edition. Today we’re looking at Illinois population trends. Now that we have the facts on the latest Census numbers, let's move on to how those numbers are being used in our political debate.

MACKEY: Facts, carefully selected, are often the seeds from which spin is grown. (Politicians often heap on a few shovels of cow manure, too, but let’s not push the metaphor.)

Much of the top-level political debate in Illinois has been about whether state laws are hostile to business. Republicans say, of course they are. And as evidence for their argument, they’ve seized on population and migration trends.

Here’s Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno in a news conference just this week. She was urging Democrats to sign on to the governor’s pro-business, anti-union agenda:

RADOGNO: “Why is this important? Because jobs are leaving Illinois. And guess what? People are following them. That is an indisputable fact."

MACKEY: This is not a new argument. In fact, Gov. Bruce Rauner made it on his very first day in office, during his inaugural address back in January 2015:

RAUNER: "Last year, last year we lost more people than any other state in America. And over the last ten years, we have ranked right near the bottom of all fifty states for out-migration to other states."

MACKEY: And to be fair, this is not all about spin. There are legislators who seem to really want to understand what’s happening. Here's Sen. Chapin Rose, a Republican from Mahomet, earlier this year at a hearing with the legislature’s nonpartisan budget forecasting unit:

ROSE: “Has anybody ever done — and I’m not suggesting I know the answer to this, because I don’t — but has anybody ever done a deep dive to see who it is that’s leaving and who it is that’s coming in?"

MACKEY: Enter Natalie Davila and Mike Klemens of KDM Consulting. Davila is a Ph.D. economist who teaches at DePaul. She’s also the former director of research at the Illinois Department of Revenue, where Klemens was in charge of policy and communications.

They wanted to look at this question because there are a lot of assumptions embedded in complaints about people leaving Illinois — that it’s the result of 2011’s temporary tax increase, for example. And that this is a relatively recent trend. Klemens says that’s not the case.

'There's been net out-migration from Illinois every year since 1925, except for one, and that was 1947 with the de-mobilization after World War II.'

KLEMENS: “According to our research, there’s been net out-migration from Illinois every year since 1925, except for one, and that was 1947 with the de-mobilization after World War II. So every year since 1925 more people have left than have come."

MACKEY: “And it looks like even if you take the data back to the mid-1800s, even really since the time of Lincoln —"

KLEMENS: “1860s, yeah."

MACKEY: Davila says that working with DC-based migration expert Lyman Stone, they used several data sources, combining two sets of Census numbers with information from the Internal Revenue Service.

The data showed several unexpected trends. One relates to the oft-heard complaint that people are leaving Illinois for Wisconsin and Indiana. Davila looked at 2012 and '13 — the most recent years for which tax data was available — and compared it to 1993 and ’94. They chose those years because both came at about the same point in the business cycle — a few years after a recession had ended.

DAVILA: “The top 10 states that people migrate to and from Illinois remain the same in those two years. And the actual net number of out-migration actually fell between those two data points to Wisconsin and to Indiana. And that just surprised me. That was not what I was expecting the data to reveal to me."

MACKEY: “And so the idea is is that even though there’s this rhetoric out there, and this idea that people are fleeing Illinois to go to Indiana, to go to Wisconsin, to go to Florida, you found that it hasn’t really changed that much since the 1990s in terms of the rate. And in fact maybe a lot of the nuance of this gets lost because people forget how much bigger Illinois is. And so the number may seem huge as people leave Illinois?"

KLEMENS: “Well sure, just look at the most recent year: a little fewer than 24,000 Illinoisans moved to Indiana. Oh, terrible. Seventeen-thousand people moved from Indiana to Illinois. Now Illinois is twice as big as Indiana, so less of Illinois’ total population moved to Indiana than Indiana's population moved to Illinois."

MACKEY: So the bottom line is that while the number of people leaving Illinois did start going up in 2011 and 2012, and it is true that the state income tax rate was increased that year, you’d also expect that migration as the state swung from recession to economic recovery.

While the data shows things did not change in 2011 in the way political rhetoric and conventional wisdom often suggest, something is happening today. Davila says there did appear to be an across the board jump in out-migration in 2014, and that it was sustained in the 2015 numbers.

DAVILA: “Basically, it’s an across the board — by age, by income, and by education level increase. Some more than others, and one that was particularly troubling to me, since I am in the education field, was the jump in the net out-migration rate of the 18 to 19 year olds. So that is something I really would love somebody to do some additional research on who has more of an expertise in education administration."

MACKEY: “And just to be clear, you did find — your report says that there was an increase among 18 and 19 year olds — a decrease in Illinois’ population of 5.1 percent in that age group in 2014?"

DAVILA: “That’s the net out-migration rate. So of the people in that age group, there was a decline of 5.1 percent in 2014."

MACKEY: "So it seems like a lot of the conversation in Illinois is based on this question of tax policy, but you raise the question in the report of perhaps we ought to be looking elsewhere. We;re so focused on this one area of policy, but maybe something else is happening here and no one’s really paying attention."

KLEMENS: “It’s sort of a given, and you hear it repeated over and over and over again, that taxes are driving people out of Illinois. Natalie’s numbers: 2011, the year of the tax increase, the migration rate went down; 2014, after the tax increases ready to go away, the migration jumps again. We need to understand what’s happening to answer the question. And by just simply accepting that, oh, it’s the tax — the taxes are driving, people are fleeing high taxes — the policymakers can’t address the problem if they don’t know what it is."

MACKEY: Of course, Illinois self-inflicted fiscal crisis cannot wait for more research. So the state’s political leaders — on both sides of the aisle — will no doubt continue using the facts that best help their arguments. And those of us with no plans to leave Illinois can wait and see what happens. I’m Brian Mackey.

Brian Mackey formerly reported on state government and politics for NPR Illinois and a dozen other public radio stations across the state. Before that, he was A&E editor at The State Journal-Register and Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.
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