For much of the 19th and early-20th centuries, the state of Illinois was a powerful magnet. Between 1850 and 1900, the state’s population grew five-fold, from 850,000 to more than 4.8 million. Some of that growth was attributable to natural population increase — big families were the rule then — but population growth was supercharged by both domestic and international migration.
For decades, Illinois was the place to be. Industry hummed and farms crackled and popped with record crops of corn and beans. Chicago, a hub of culture, commerce and industry, was the second city, trailing only New York. By 1960, the population of Illinois had doubled again to nearly 11 million.
Times change. “People are leaving Illinois in droves,” a new report from the Pew Charitable Trust observes. “Illinois’ population has declined by 157,000 residents over the past five years, making it one of only two states — West Virginia is the other — to lose people over the past decade.”
Pew cites a number of factors contributing to the exodus. A survey by Southern Illinois University found that nearly half of Illinois residents wanted to move to another state, citing taxes, weather, ineffective and corrupt local government and a lack of middle-class jobs. Nearly half of Illinois college-bound public high school students chose to go to out-of-state universities and colleges in 2017, according to an analysis by the Illinois Board of Higher Education. “In 2002, that number was under 30 percent.” That matters because people who go to school out state tend to stay out of state.
Illinois’ falling population is a harsh commentary on the state of the state. Residents are voting with their feet, and saying things aren’t working. Chicago’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, made stabilizing the population of the city she governs the theme of her winning campaign for office.
Illinois policymakers can’t do much to ameliorate either its brutal winter or summer weather. But climate is not determined by temperature and snowfall alone. There’s high taxes and the state could do something about that. Buckling under a pension system that overpromised its ballooning public payroll for years, the state has been particularly creative with extracting — and extracting and extracting — money from its declining numbers of residents.
Earlier this month, the Illinois Policy Institute observes, the legislature devised 21 different ways to extract more money from taxpayers to finance spending on government operation. Illinois residents will pay more new or higher taxes and fees on gasoline, automotive registrations, parking, marijuana, gambling, and online shopping.” The governing Democrats are further looking to the 2020 ballot to do away with the flat state-income tax, and impose a graduated levy. Illinois residents already pay high sales taxes, property taxes and fuel taxes. With lower-tax Wisconsin, Iowa and Indiana beckoning from next door, there’s no wonder that so many residents are looking to hit the exits.
States have retained, not without a struggle, the right to set their own tax policies, and high-tax states are losing out to more affordable states from coast to coast. Besides Illinois and West Virginia, some of the slowest growing or shrinking states are New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Hawaii. Nearly all are afflicted with harsh weather. By contrast, Nevada, Texas, Florida and Washington State are growing at a healthy clip. None levy a state income tax.
There are occasional consolations. Saturday night in New Haven or anywhere in Little Rhody is not as much fun as Saturday night in Manhattan. High-tax New York offers cultural amenities that tax-free Nevada does not. Hawaii is highly taxed but that seems to be the price of paradise.
The data does suggest that Americans, a mobile people accustomed to packing up and giving in to the lure of the open road, look to places where they can afford to live comfortably. Reasonable living costs are, of course, a key ingredient in a comfortable life. That means taxes.
So, too, is reasonable weather. If Illinois can’t reform its taxes in a way that makes it more charitable, perhaps global warming will make its winters a little more livable.
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