A decline in immigration and shrinking economic opportunities in Illinois are big reasons why the state continues to lose population, while an equity-focused effort to grow the economy could help reverse that trend coming out of the pandemic, so says a leading Chicago-area regional planning official.
“It’s really important that we as a state really shore up some of these areas where there’s opportunity,” said Erin Aleman, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), a regional planning group. “We need to shore up our policies that we need to attract and retain business and identify those places where businesses might want to locate — and then also share with them that we have a skilled workforce.”
CMAP has issued an analysis of recently released population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. The analysis shows that Illinois has lost population for seven years running and has witnessed the second-largest population loss of all U.S. states since 2010.
Illinois lost almost 2% of its residents from 2010 to 2020, according to the report. West Virginia was the only state to see a higher rate of population loss over that time period.
The report also showed that, in 2019, more than 308,000 Illinois residents moved to other states. The top destinations were Indiana, Florida, California, Texas and Wisconsin. Many of those states were also top sources of residents moving to Illinois, but in smaller numbers.
“The numbers were not unexpected, given the trend of decline over the past decade that we’ve seen,” said Aleman. “But they do continue to be concerning as we think about the future of our region and what sort of strategies we need to put in place to make sure that we are growing.”
According to the report, the vast majority of Illinois’ population loss occurred outside the Chicago area. At least 10 downstate counties saw their population decline by more than 5% over the past decade, the report showed.
Among Chicago-area counties, population grew in DuPage, Kane, Kendall and Will counties. Aleman attributed their growth to the lower cost of living and, in the case of Will County, its status as an inland port for the region.
While the Chicago region’s population has remained largely flat since 2010, the area’s growth rate ranks in the bottom five among the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas, according to the report.
“We typically think of ourselves in comparison to [Los Angeles], to New York, and I do think it’s concerning when we’re 46th out of 50 top metropolitan regions,” Aleman said. “Places like Boston, Philadelphia, Hartford … [and] Cleveland are doing better than Chicago, in terms of population.”
In addition to policies focused on business retention, Aleman also suggested that leaders examine how tax structures affect communities in Illinois. For example, some communities rely on state funding distributed on a per capita basis, making them susceptible to a drain in resources when their populations dip. CMAP advocates for modernizing the tax system to ensure all communities have enough revenue to provide public services and meet infrastructure needs.
Aleman said the effects of the pandemic likely will exacerbate economic challenges the Chicago region has faced for years, including a lack of opportunities for Black residents. She said the region has the highest black unemployment rate among the nation’s 25 most populous metro areas.
“So centering equity as we recover is going to be crucial,” Aleman said. “When all people have access to economic opportunity, think of the amount of resources, wealth generation, the ability for people to contribute to their own economies and local economies.”
She added: “Coming out of COVID, it’s not just getting back to where we were, because we were already seeing this trend of population decline; it’s about really doubling down on fixing inequities.”
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk and WBEZ’s Education desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.