Illinois’ rural counties shrink fastest in 2023

Illinois’ rural counties shrink fastest in 2023

While Cook County experienced the largest decline, less-populous Illinois counties were losing people at the fastest rate last year.

Illinois’ 10th consecutive year of population loss in 2023 hit rural counties, which lost a larger share of their people faster than their urban peers.

The state’s population dropped by 32,826 residents from July 2022-July 2023 in 87 of Illinois’ 102 counties, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates released March 14.

Most of the decline came from Cook County, which lost 24,494 residents during the year. But some rural counties losing a few hundred residents from a relatively small population translated into a rapid rate of population loss.

Gallatin County and Alexander County, both in southern Illinois, each lost more than 30 people for every 1,000 residents, by far the fastest rates in the state. Stark County, Edwards County and White County experienced the next fastest declines.

As far as raw numbers, Cook County was the biggest loser. Counties neighboring it saw increases in their populations largely thanks to lower levels of people moving out of the state – the sole driver of statewide and Cook County population declines.

Outmigration in Cook County was the second worst of any county in the nation last year. While the data released by the Census Bureau does not provide information on where residents moved, is likely many of the residents who left Cook County in 2023 moved to nearby counties within the state.

While overall population decline slowed in 2023 compared to previous years, population decline continued to plague virtually every corner of the state. The next largest losses after Cook County came in St. Clair County, losing 1,247, and Lake County, which lost 1,139 residents.

With so many communities affected by Illinois’ population crisis, it is imperative we recognize the reason for the decline. Statewide, population decline continues to be driven exclusively by domestic outmigration – residents leaving for other states.

Of the Illinoisans who left the state on net, 97% moved to lower-tax states in 2022 – the most recent data available.  Historically, high taxes have been the No. 1 reason Illinoisans considered moving out. Polling from NPR Illinois and the University of Illinois found 61% of Illinoisans thought about moving out of state in 2019, and the No. 1 reason was taxes. The Paul Simon Public Policy Institute found 47% of Illinoisans wanted to leave the state in 2016. It also found “taxes are the single biggest reason people want to leave,” with 27% citing that motive. The Lincoln Poll conducted for the Illinois Policy Institute in 2023 substantiated these sentiments.

Even when taxes were not a response option, surveys of those who have left the state showed the major reasons were for better housing and employment opportunities. Both have been made worse by poor public policy in Illinois.

10th year of population decline, especially when driven by residents choosing to leave Illinois, should get the state’s leaders working on solutions. The fact that every corner of the state is seeing losses should bring them together to advance bipartisan solutions, which start with controlling taxes.

Politicians need to listen when people reject what they are offering. If they ease the tax burden and reduce arduous business regulations, they can make it easier for Illinoisans to stay, whether they are in Cook or Gallatin counties.

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