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What's at stake in latest census numbers
Our newly elected leaders have their work cut out for them in figuring out how to fill Illinois' budget hole while also making Chicago and the state a place where people want to live and work for the long haul.

Monday, April 22, 2019
Crain's Chicago Business
by Editorial Board

The newest data from the Census Bureau is like an MRI of the local economy: The figures show, in sharp relief, just how delicate Chicago's condition truly is.

Like New York and Los Angeles, the Chicago area is losing population, albeit slightly. We are, however, shrinking faster than those metro regions, according to an analysis of the latest numbers by Crain's senior reporter John Pletz.

In fact, the Chicago area's population declined for the fourth year in a row in 2018. There were 22,000 fewer residents in the 14-county metro area than in 2017, a drop of 0.2 percent, compared with a 0.1 percent drop in New York and L.A. It was the first time since 2010 that the Chicago area's population slipped below 9.5 million people. Cook County, which accounts for 55 percent of the population in the metro area, lost 24,000 residents. DuPage and Lake counties, the second- and third-largest, respectively, each lost about 2,000 residents.

Chicago is suffering the demographic realities—an aging population that's retiring, moving or dying faster than it can be replenished by births or immigration—that come with being a large, aging city at a time when growth is happening in the Sun Belt and the oil patch. Changes in immigration, driven by both politics and economics, also have had a big impact.

"It matters," demographer Rob Paral told our reporter regarding the region's continued population losing streaks. "We have fewer consumers and taxpayers. But at a high level, if I were the mayor or county board president, I might be a little relieved. Just a few years ago, people were saying that we're going to look like Detroit and go bankrupt—everyone's leaving because of taxes. It's not true. It's not fabulous, but it's not a crisis."

While it's true the population loss doesn't amount to the exodus partisans make it out to be on the opinion pages and comments sections of the state's various media outlets, there's still reason to worry. Illinoisans' high property tax burden certainly isn't the sole cause—people leave for all sorts of reasons, and Pletz's reporting suggests one of the factors driving the uptick, paradoxically, is the improving economy overall. "When the economy was down—through 2014—urban cores were holding onto more of their domestic migrants. That's changing now," University of New Hampshire demographer Kenneth Johnson told Pletz. "A lot of people were frozen in place by the recession. As the economy has loosened up, those outflows are beginning again."

That said, taxes—as well as the very real fear Illinois may never dig itself out of its hole—play a part in the psychology of the moment. Our newly elected leaders—Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot and Gov. J.B. Pritzker chief among them—have their work cut out for them in figuring out how to fill that budget hole while also making Chicago and the state a place where people want to live and work for the long haul.

The soon-to-be ex-mayor, Rahm Emanuel, did a good job of drawing corporate headquarters here despite the city's and state's well-known fiscal challenges, and despite a years-long budget grudge match between the previous governor, Bruce Rauner, and his legislative foes that only further intensified this state's reputation for dysfunction. Will Pritzker and Lightfoot be able to build on Emanuel's salesmanship and continue luring big employers here? The census numbers demonstrate in stark terms how vitally important it will be for them to pick up on Emanuel's momentum. Every move Lightfoot and Pritzker make will have to be measured against the backdrop of these unsettling demographic figures.



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