For the third consecutive year, Illinois has lost more residents than any other state, losing 37,508 people in 2016, which puts its population at the lowest it has been in nearly a decade, according to U.S. census data released Tuesday.
Illinois is among just eight states to lose residents, putting its population at 12,801,539 people, its lowest since about 2009. Illinois’ population first began to drop in 2014, when the state lost 11,961 people. That number more than doubled in 2015, with a loss of 28,497 people, and further multiplied in 2016.
“Illinois is a part of the country where, in general, during the recession, it held on to (people) who wanted to move to Sun Belt states. Now, it’s losing them,” said William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution who analyzes census data.
“When you have a big state like Illinois, to lose population for three years in a row? That’s cause for alarm,” he added.
The plunge is mainly a result of the large number of residents leaving the state in the past year — about 114,144 in all — which couldn’t be offset by new residents and births, according to census data measuring population from July 2015 to July 2016. The number of residents leaving the state is the largest in recent history, as data from 1990 show just 50,440 residents left Illinois and migrated to other states.
Illinois, however, had only the second-greatest decline rate in 2016, as even with the population drop it continues to be the fifth-most populous state. West Virginia had the greatest decline rate this year.
By most measures, Illinois’ population will continue to sharply decline in the coming years as more residents call it quits on the state they call home. The Tribune last year surveyed dozens of former residents who had fled within the past five years, and all offered their own list of reasons for doing so. Common reasons included high taxes, the state budget stalemate, crime, the unemployment rate and the weather. Census data released last year suggested the root of the problem was the Chicago area, which in 2015 saw its first population decline since at least 1990, having lost 6,263 residents.
The state’s population loss is part of a national trend of slow growth, as the U.S. this past year saw the lowest rate of growth of any year since 1936 and 1937, during the Great Depression era. Between 2015 and 2016, the nation grew at just 0.695 percent, lower than 0.7 percent between 2012 and 2013 and the lowest since 0.6 percent between 1936 and 1937, according to an analysis of the data.
The sluggish growth of the past year is in part due to the aging of the nation’s population, experts say. The past year has seen a downturn in births and a rise in deaths, as the number of deaths nationally was higher than it has been since at least 2000, according to census data. And the median age of the population, which Frey said is around 37 years, is expected to rise, resulting in fewer people who are of child-bearing age, he said.
“In general, I think the (slowed growth) is a combination of lower births and higher deaths,” he said. “The lower births can be chalked up to the recession and post-recession period, as young people and millennials are putting off having kids. The question is, ‘Will they have them?’ ”
While Illinois has exhibited a long-standing pattern of losing residents to other states, traditionally births, in addition to migration from other countries, have balanced the loss.
More than any other city, Chicago has depended on Mexican immigrants to balance the sluggish growth of its native-born population, and during the 1990s, immigration accounted for most of Chicago’s population growth. After 2007, however, Mexican-born populations began to fall across all the nation’s major metropolitan areas. Unlike Chicago, most of those cities managed to make up for the loss with the growth of their native populations.
Now, Illinois residents are mostly leaving for Sun Belt states — those with the country’s warmest climates, like Texas, Arizona and Florida. During the years after the economic recession of the mid-2000s, migration to those states paused but has started up again as states in the South and West have better job opportunities and more affordable housing. Texas, in fact, attracts the greatest number of Illinois residents, followed by Florida, Indiana, California and Arizona, according to 2013 Internal Revenue Service migration data.
Leading the exodus to warmer states is the black population, in search of more stable incomes, safe neighborhoods and prosperity. Between 2014 and 2015, more than 9,000 black residents left Cook County.
But it’s not just the weather driving residents away. Job and business opportunities are stronger in neighboring states, sending more Illinois residents to other parts of the Midwest than vice versa, said Michael Lucci, vice president of policy at the right-leaning Illinois Policy Institute. Among them are younger, working-age adults, who make up some of the largest groups leaving the state, he said.
“That really speaks to economic concerns being at the heart of this. We’ve seen Illinois showing weak job creation in downstate communities, losses in manufacturing jobs and people wanting to opt out of a high tax environment,” Lucci said.
While other Midwestern states also are losing population, Lucci said the “pattern is on steroids for Illinois.” This past year, just 27,839 residents left Michigan, 12,395 residents left Wisconsin and about 12,135 left Indiana, according to census data. About 6,250 residents left Missouri while Iowa had 3,392 residents leave the state.
“I think what that says about Illinois is quite dire,” he said, calling for transformational reform in state leadership. “Overwhelmingly, people are leaving to go anywhere other than Illinois.”