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Begalka: Mass exodus from Illinois a continuing trend

Kurt Begalka
Kurt Begalka

Illinois lost 45,000 people in 2018. That marks the fifth straight year the state has lost people, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“From July 2017 to July 2018, more than 114,000 Illinoisans left the state, a total population decline of more than 45,000 people,” the Illinois News Network reported. “The data show Illinois had the second-largest decline of any state in the nation and Illinois’ largest in decades. Only West Virginia lost as high of a percentage of population, and only New York lost more people.”

According to the Illinois Policy Institute, Illinois loses a resident every 4.6 minutes to other states, coupled with a dwindling birth rate.

“Illinois’ population loss over the last five years is equivalent to losing the entire city of Joliet, Naperville or Rockford (the third-, fourth- and fifth-largest cities in the state, respectively),” the Illinois Policy Institute wrote. “If this continues, Illinois is projected to lose one or two of its 18 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives following the 2020 Census.”

Even worse than this loss of representation is the fact that those exiting Illinois tend to be educated and of prime working age. Factors blamed for the outgoing population migration range from high taxes (made higher by fewer taxpayers) and concerns about the state’s business climate to Chicago’s murder rate and the state budget deficit (at $14.6 billion and climbing). The last time Illinois had a balanced budget – i.e., enough money to cover all of its bills – was in fiscal 2001.

James Gregory, a history professor at the University of Washington, spearheaded “America’s Great Migrations Project” three years ago as part of the Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium at the Seattle university. A migration expert with 30 years of experience and several books to his credit, Gregory believes the move is the latest chapter in a larger story.

“In general, there has been an outgoing exodus from older population centers in the Northeast and Great Lakes states in the Midwest. Illinois has been sending its sons and daughters to other states, particularly the West, for generations,” Gregory said. “Now the birth rate has slowed, and the out-rate has surpassed those numbers.”

The Migrations Project, which chronicles migration history between 1850 and 2010, suggests that population redistribution is a cyclical thing. For example, between 1930 and 1940, Illinois’ population grew by 162,587 – a jump of a little more than 2 percent.

“Illinois, like other Midwestern states, experienced rapid population growth through migration in the 19th century and much slower growth since then. Recording a population of 851,000 in 1850, the state doubled its numbers by 1860, doubled again by 1880 and again before 1910. It has taken a century to double the 1910 total (5,638,591).

“Migration in the 19th century drew heavily on states to the east of Illinois, especially New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania. European immigrants from Germany and Ireland came in huge numbers in the same period. The 1880 Census showed that about half the population was from out of state, with Germany, New York, Ohio and Ireland the leading contributors.”

“Everybody seems to be moving west. That is how Illinois got its population, and that is how Illinois lost its population,” Gregory said. “Although, more recently, people have headed south.”

• Kurt Begalka is administrator of the McHenry County Historical Society and Museum. He can be reached at kurt@mchenrycountyhistory.org.

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