Illinois' Political Muscle Withers With Shrinking Population

In the summer of 1952, the International Amphitheater in Chicago, with air conditioning and state-of-the-art accommodations for a new breed of broadcast journalists, hosted not one but two presidential nominating conventions. The city's 3.6 million people made it nearly twice the size of Los Angeles which, while glamorous and growing, was still a 40-hour train ride away, too distant even for big-league baseball.

With Chicago leading the way, midcentury Illinois was king of the nation’s middle, second only to New York. But those days were a distant memory last month when the Census Bureau reported that in the last decade, Illinois lost population for the first time in its history.

“We like to compare ourselves to New York and to L.A.," said Erin Aleman, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. “To see the state experience a decline, it’s tough.”

Reversing the flow of young people out of Illinois poses tough questions for Democrats, who've proposed new legislative maps and whose control of the state has tightened as its national influence has shrunk. Experts say the state has to dump a Rust Belt mindset by widening employment opportunities, putting affordable housing in the right places and turning current tax policy on its head.

The total population is about 12.8 million, a decline of just 18,124 people, or less than 1%. But it cost the state one of its 18 U.S. House seat s — from a high of 27 in 1930 — a consequence more than psychological. And it was a rare drop. Only two other states, Mississippi and West Virginia, lost residents.

Historically, an Associated Press review found that, not counting the District of Columbia or Puerto Rico, a decennial population loss has occurred to a state only 31 times since 1900. Downturns often occurred during cataclysms: half a dozen states lost people during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, New York diminished in the 1970s amid a financial crisis that nearly pushed New York City into bankruptcy, Iowa fell during the farm crisis of the 1980s.

William Frey, senior fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at The Brookings Institution, said Illinois is losing young people of child-bearing age, a loss that's compounded when those people go on to have their children in other states. And Illinois isn't attracting enough young people from elsewhere, he said.

The decline was apparent early in the decade, even before Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican who served from 2015-2019, advocated his conservative “turn around” agenda — lower taxes and fewer business regulations — to stem what he claimed was an exodus-from-Illinois stampede.

It's the echo of Rauner's drumbeat that piqued Gov. J.B. Pritzker's response. Pritzker, who defeated the one-term Rauner in 2018, decried “the carnival barkers and the right-wing zealots” who he said were exaggerating the decline. He also hit Trump-era policies — late in the 2010s — that hampered immigrant inflow, long a source of growth for the state.

“I’m not going to downplay it in any way. We have to do better. We have to do more,” Pritzker said. “We need to keep our students here. We need to make it affordable for people to come to the state of Illinois and go to school here.”

Aleman believes there are answers in the Chicago Metropolitan Agency on Planning's outlook, “On to 2050,” with appropriate housing planned for areas targeted for employment growth and with updated, community-friendly tax policies. Grousing about property taxes, at or near the nation’s highest, is an Illinois pastime.

“Those policies that are in place today were developed decades ago and really need to be brought up to date to deal with how we’re buying goods, how we’re living our lives, how we’re traveling on the roads,” Aleman said.

Two of those proposals, when floated during the past 20 years, have hit fierce opposition: Broadening the sales tax base to include services as well as products and substituting a usage fee for the motor fuel tax, whose impact has plummeted with fuel efficiency. Another key change would restructure the way state tax revenue is shared with municipalities to give them more flexibility in determining land use.

Stu Piper grew up in the Chicago suburb of LaGrange in a family that first farmed land in 1836, before Chicago was even incorporated as a city. Now a Realtor in Washington, D.C., but still a Prairie State booster, Piper said there's strength outside Chicago in the stable housing prices offered by an abundance of smaller metropolitan areas such as Rockford, Peoria, the Quad Cities, Bloomington-Normal and Springfield.

“With the gig economy, there’s opportunities for people to work from home and live 100 miles from Chicago, maybe go in Chicago once or twice a month, or go to Rockford or Moline,” said Piper, past president of the Illinois Society of Washington, a group of Illinois ex-pats who promote the state in the nation's capital.

“There’s a lot of people in Illinois, politicians and community leaders, that are thinking outside the box,” he said. “Not the same old, same way, go-along-get-along kind of politics, which Illinois has had for way too long.”


Decennial population losses in U.S. states since 1900:


AP Researcher Monika Mathur in New York and AP Writer Sophia Tareen in Chicago contributed.


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