Illinois' Population Drain Continues for 7th Consecutive Year

The tax- and corruption-heavy state has lost a quarter-million people in the past decade.


For the seventh year in a row, census figures show residents moving out of Illinois in significant numbers. New estimates released Tuesday by the U.S. Census Bureau reveal that the state's population in 2020 declined at a rate not seen since World War II.

Perhaps demanding that your excessively taxed residents give the government even more money is not the best way to keep those residents in your state amid a pandemic that has shut down massive chunks of the economy.

Over the course of the last decade, Illinois lost more than a quarter-million people, dropping to a total population of about 12.5 million. The state lost 79,000 residents this year, an increase over previous years. The Wall Street Journal predicts that as a result of this loss, the state will lose at least one congressional seat during the next reapportionment.

Illinois isn't alone. California, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Minnesota, and Michigan may also lose congressional representation due to population migrations over the past decade. New York and Alabama are on the bubble of each losing a representative. But none, not even California, has seen Illinois' population loss.

Reason has been making note of this trend for years, while also observing (particularly in Chicago) that state and local government have poorly managed their public employee pension obligations, creating massive government debts that consume budgets and lead to service cuts. Government leaders have responded not with better fiscal management (the state's powerful unions blocked pension reforms), but with more taxes and fees, even as residents leave. As C.J. Ciaramella has reported, Chicago's corrupt policing system of fines, asset forfeitures, and vehicle impounds serves to extract whatever money the city can get from its poorest citizens to pay for itself.

But these revenue schemes cannot replace taxpaying residents, which is why Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker threw a Hail Mary in November by trying to convince voters to change their income tax system from a flat tax to a graduated income tax. His plan, supported by state lawmakers, was to "update" the tax rates in order to jack up rates for the state's richest citizens. At least, that's what he told voters, selling it as a "Fair Tax."

But the referendum put before the voters would subsequently have allowed lawmakers to set whatever income tax rates they wanted on rich and poor alike. Voters saw through the act and soundly rejected Pritzker's plan, with 55 percent voting no.

Bryce Hill, senior research analyst for the Illinois Policy Institute, sees Illinois' continued decline as a reflection of the state's unwillingness to recognize that it can't tax its way back to prosperity:

While data scheduled to be released in February 2021 will shed light on the main drivers of population loss in 2020, historical data shows domestic outmigration—moving to and from other states—has been the sole driver of population decline. Major reasons Illinoisans are choosing to leave the state are for better housing and employment opportunities, both of which have been hindered by poor public policy in Illinois. Nearly half of Illinoisans have thought about moving away, and they said taxes were their No. 1 reason.

Maybe losing congressional representation and power will get through to state leaders? Don't hold your breath.