Ep. 39: The truth about Illinois’ population

Ep. 39: The truth about Illinois’ population

What’s the deal with Illinois’ population? Are we gaining residents like Gov. Pritzker has recently said or are we losing residents, as has been reported for seven straight years? Bryce Hill joins the Policy Shop to break down the Census Bureau releases and share the truth about Illinois’ population story. Learn more by subscribing to the Policy Shop newsletter at illin.is/newsletter.

Host: Hilary Gowins, Senior Vice President
Guest: Bryce Hill, Senior Research Analyst

This edition of The Policy Shop comes to you from Senior Research Analyst Bryce Hill.

Perhaps like many Illinoisans, you saw the promising population numbers from the Census Bureau’s 2020 Post-Enumeration Survey.

While Gov. JB Pritzker and others like him are celebrating the Census results as direct population growth – and even claiming credit for growth – the true data shows us something different.

The truth, however, often takes some digging, so we’re going to explain what’s really going on in our state.

TL;DR … Illinois’ population is likely larger than previously believed, sitting somewhere near 13 million people. But Illinois’ population still likely shrank by 253,015 from 2010 to 2020.

Surveying the survey: The Census Bureau created a major buzz when it dropped additional 2020 population numbers that laypeople mistakenly took to mean Illinois is actively growing, not shrinking. Some Illinois politicians are using an estimate to revise other Census data and claim Illinois doesn’t have a problem with its residents moving away. Although a closer look shows they are wrong, a lot of people, including Gov. JB Pritzker, are still spinning the latest Census release into something it’s not.

True: Illinois is bigger than we thought. That’s great! False: Illinois is growing. We’re not! We just experienced record-breaking population loss.

Excavating the truth:  In reality, the Census believes it undercounted Illinois’s population. The recently-published Census Bureau’s Post Enumeration Survey (PES) measures population levels. It’s used as a check for how accurate the census count was. Meanwhile, the Census Bureau’s Population Estimates Program (PEP) is designed to measure population change. It shows Illinois is the only state with accelerating population loss for 8 straight years, including in 2021 when its numbers showed a record-setting loss of 114,000 residents.

This makes Gov. Pritzker’s claim below embarrassing at best and misleading at worst.

It’s likely the people in the newly-counted census numbers were always in Illinois; they just were missed by the official 2010 Census count. Outreach efforts were broader in 2020 with nearly double the advertising spend, the option for online responses, and more multilingual options. It’s also likely these changes led to a more accurate 2020 count, and that the 2010 count may have been higher had it been conducted under similar circumstances.

Fossils emerge: Politicians saying the state is growing are incorrect. It’s true Illinois is bigger than we thought, but it’s also true that we’re still losing population as residents move out. Illinois’ population is like a leaky bucket. Just because the bucket is bigger than we thought doesn’t change the fact that there’s still a hole.

In addition to the Census, plenty of other data backs up Illinois’ severe population problem as more people are leaving and fewer are moving to the state. Tax return data from the IRS and studies from moving companies are two examples. Anyone who’s tried to get a one-way U-Haul out of Illinois knows this.

The latest Census data is good for Illinois, but it is dangerous to misconstrue what it means. While Illinois has more people than previously thought, it still has serious population problems.

Once we understand the numbers, our natural next thought is why? Why are people leaving our state? As the video below explains, three main reasons include jobs, housing, and taxes. Workers are choosing to live in states with lower taxes and better amenities.

The real discovery: While there have been perceived discrepancies between the Census Bureau’s estimates of the population and their official decennial Census count, there are conclusions to be drawn from the big picture offered by viewing the Census Bureau products together. Mainly:

  1. Illinois’ population is higher than previously believed. The 2020 Census and PES have confirmed Illinois’ population is higher than previous estimates based on the 2010 Census. It is likely that the increased outreach efforts and changes to methodology – such as the option to respond to the 2020 Census online – resulted in a more accurate count this time than a decade earlier.
  2. Illinois’ population is in decline. Despite 2020 Census counts that were higher than estimates based on the 2010 Census count, estimates of population change were likely accurate when they showed decline. Evidence of the downward trend includes the fact that even after the 2020 Census count reset the baseline, the Census Bureau’s PEP estimated the largest population decline in Illinois history for 2021. Other estimates of migration from the IRS and multiple moving companies have found more people continue to move out of Illinois than into the state. Because birth and death rates virtually offset each other, domestic migration is the main driver of Illinois population change.
  3. Confusion surrounding estimates of population levels and change could be fixed through better integration of Census Bureau products. During the Census Bureau’s webinar on the PES results, representatives said this was an ongoing effort.

Take claims that we don’t have a problem with residents moving away with serious scrutiny. Don’t get us wrong, we want something to cheer about – namely, a growing state population. But the numbers don’t lie.

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