Rural areas lose to cities amid Illinois’ historic population loss

Rural areas lose to cities amid Illinois’ historic population loss

Chicago and other urban areas in Illinois gained people compared to the rural areas, with 87 of 102 counties losing people in the 2020 U.S. Census.

While Illinois lost population for the first time in 200 years during the 2020 U.S. Census, it was the rural areas that took the biggest hit as Chicagoland saw growth.

The U.S. Census Bureau released its first batch of detailed redistricting data on Aug. 12, offering the first look at official census tallies beyond the state-level totals. Previous Census data confirmed Illinois for the first time in 200 years lost population in the decennial U.S. Census count. The state shed 18,124 residents between the 2010 and 2020 counts, dropping the state to 6th-most populous in the nation – now behind Pennsylvania – and one of only three states losing population.

The new data shows Illinois’ population decline was widespread, with 87 of the state’s 102 counties shedding population in 2020 compared to 2010.

Counties throughout the state shed population to varying degrees, with the exception of the northeastern-most counties surrounding Chicago, which experienced more concentrated population growth. Cook County added 80,866 residents; while Will, Kendall, DuPage, and Lake Counties each added more than 10,000 residents; Grundy, McHenry, and Kane Counties saw lesser growth of fewer than 2,500 residents.

Of the counties not within the Chicagoland area, Champaign County grew the most adding 4,784 residents, while Monroe County added 2,005 residents.  Meanwhile, McLean, Williamson, Johnson, Effingham and Carroll counties’ population grew by less than 1,400 each.

Despite population growth in some pockets of the state, the more widespread population decline led Illinois’ population totals to decline relative to the 2010 census. Only two other states in the nation – Mississippi and West Virginia – saw population decline according to the official Census count. Perhaps even more concerning for Illinois’ population in the long-term, is that even the parts of the state that are growing the most are growing far slower than the national average and comparable areas.

Chicago, which added approximately 50,000 residents, is the slowest growing of the nation’s 10 most-populous cities, growing at 1.9% during the decade. The next-slowest-growing large city was Los Angeles, which grew 2.8% during the past decade. All other large cities were growing more than twice as fast as Chicago.

Meanwhile, the larger Chicago-Naperville-Elgin metropolitan statistical area, which represents nearly all of the population growth in the state, was growing at an even slower rate of 1.7% during the past decade.

These figures, while still a concerning sign for Illinois, beat expectations. There are discrepancies between the Census Bureau’s estimates of the population and their official decennial Census count, which showed a much smaller population loss that hasn’t yet been addressed by the Census Bureau.

Questions over the accuracy of the official count have been raised on numerous occasions in recent years. One of the primary ways the Census Bureau checks the official count is to compare it with their previous estimates.

It is also unclear what effect Illinois’ increased Census outreach spending, which was second highest in the nation, had on the official results. It is possible increased spending resulted in a more accurate count in 2020 than in 2010, which could explain the difference in the official count from the estimates. The 2020 estimates are based on the 2010 official count.

This wouldn’t be the first time improvements in the Census process have resulted in official counts that are different from the estimates. For example, the 2020 census was the first time households were allowed to respond online, which almost assuredly improves responsiveness.

It could be more likely in this scenario that the components of population change are still relatively accurate, just that the 2010 base population level was incorrect.

Regardless of the reason for the discrepancies, or what is actually happening with population change in Illinois, the new census data also has potential consequences for Illinois’ legislative map. The data provided the detailed count of populations needed to accurately apportion districts of equal population, as required by the state and federal constitutions. However, state lawmakers passed maps in a partisan fashion earlier this year without having access to this data, meaning there was no way to ensure their accuracy.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker had during the campaign and repeatedly as governor promised to veto any gerrymandered maps, but he walked back that promise. He fully broke it June 4 when he signed both legislative and judicial redistricting plans into law.

It is likely these maps will end up in court, where they could be sent back to the Illinois General Assembly to be redrawn. Or, the Illinois Supreme Court justices might follow the lead of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and redraw the district lines on their own.

Much of this controversy could have been avoided had the Illinois Constitution been amended to take redistricting out of the hands of lawmakers and put in the hands of an independent redistricting commission.

Fifteen states have already established such commissions for legislative redistricting, some with positive results. Illinois needs to do the same if it is ever going to avoid the partisan gerrymandering that has been the hallmark of past redistricting cycles.

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