The Policy Shop: Illinois’ sorry decade of population shrinkage

The Policy Shop: Illinois’ sorry decade of population shrinkage

This edition of The Policy Shop is by Director of Fiscal and Economic Research Bryce Hill.

Illinois ended 2023 with some bad news: There are fewer of us. Again.

Multiple that “again” by 10.

For 10 years in a row, Illinois’ population gains could not keep up with the rate of people packing up and moving to other states. We lost 32,826 residents in the latest U.S. Census estimate, which measured the change between June 30, 2022, and July 1, 2023. That number was tempered by 10,453 more births than deaths and 40,492 migrants gained from abroad. But it was driven up by 83,839 people deciding Illinois was no longer for them.

The good news, sort-of, was the loss was about one-third of what Illinois lost in each of the previous two years, which set records. But this could be the eye of the storm. Illinois’ slower losses were part of a nationwide trend, returning to the population trajectory seen before the pandemic accelerated Illinois’ losses. With people suddenly able to work from home, they could more easily choose to make their home somewhere other than Illinois. The coming storm is possible thanks to Illinois population loss being driven by people leaving the state: as the state’s population ages, domestic migration will play an even larger role in population growth.

Some other perspectives on the state’s population loss:

  • Illinois suffered the 3rd-worst population loss this year. Only New York and California lost a larger number of residents.
  • Controlling for population size, only New York, Louisiana and Hawaii are shrinking faster than Illinois.
  • Illinois is the only state among its neighbors to suffer population loss.
  • Another Illinoisan leaves every 6 minutes, 16 seconds.

Before buying any state politician’s spin on the population change, keep in mind it is unlikely the moves are slowing because people feel better about Illinois. More likely, those who were able to move out have already done so.

It’s also possible the migrant crisis has buoyed the state’s population and the national housing shortage, partnered with decade-high mortgage rates, have deterred residents from leaving. If lawmakers don’t take significant steps to reduce the financial burden on Illinois residents, the state will continue its decade-long outmigration run.

So why would people want to leave? They made it pretty clear when they were polled: government doesn’t treat them right.

When taxes were not a response option, surveys of those who 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.

Among surveys where taxes were a permitted response, high taxes were cited as the No. 1 reason Illinoisans considered leaving the state. 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 Illinois Policy Institute’s Lincoln Poll this year found 51% of the voters surveyed would leave if they could. Again, most blamed high taxes.

Put another way, Illinois politicians are taxing the state to a slow death.

A 10th year of population decline, especially when driven by residents choosing to leave Illinois, should be an alarm for the state’s leaders. 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.

Illinois should be a destination, not a leader in departures.

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