This editorial appeared in the Dec. 22, 2017 edition of The (Champaign) News-Gazette.

The numbers don't lie: Illinois is shrinking while most of the country is growing.

Imagine if everyone in Danville, plus nearly everyone in Tilton, packed up their belongings, loaded their cars and trucks left the state.

That's how many fewer people reside in Illinois from July 1, 2016, to July 1, 2017, according to figures released by the U.S. Census Bureau this week. In fact, Illinois had the largest population loss of any state.

In a year's time, many people die — about 33,000 in 2016-17. But births more than offset that; Illinois gained nearly 154,000 new little citizens in that same time frame. Plus, the Land of Lincoln welcomed more new residents internationally than it lost — a net increase of 33,700.

The reason Illinois' population is falling — while most states', including all neighboring ones, are increasing: More people are leaving than arriving. The state's "net domestic migration" was a minus-114,779. That's just in a year's time.

In the seven years since the last census in 2010, Illinois has seen a net loss to other states of nearly 643,000 people. That's roughly the combined populations of Champaign, McLean, Macon, Vermilion, Iroquois, Douglas, Piatt and Ford counties.

Why is Illinois losing people while other states are gaining?

Is it the weather? The beginning of winter does cause some Northerners to daydream about a Florida beach or an Arizona golf course.

But every Midwestern state, where winter is just as frosty, has gained population since 2010 — except Illinois.

Maybe it's property taxes, since Illinois ranks No. 2 for the highest real estate taxes.

Maybe it's higher income taxes. The personal rate has fluctuated from 5 percent to 3.75 percent and now 4.95 percent.

Maybe it's the business climate. Illinois' does have higher workers' compensation insurance rates than surrounding states.

Maybe it's the state's ever-rising public pension debt. Earlier this month, Fitch Ratings calculated that Illinois is carrying an unfunded liability of $151.5 billion — the highest in the nation, dwarfing No. 2 New Jersey with $91.8 billion.

Maybe it's the state's dysfunctional political climate. The two-year impasse between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democratically controlled state Legislature over how to fund education and other essential services damaged the state's reputation nationally.

Maybe it's all that and more.

According to Internal Revenue Service data, Illinois' young adults — the so-called millennials — are the ones likely to move to other states.

And with them goes more than just census numbers. Illinois loses its future. These are the most recent high school and college graduates. They are the ones who get married and start families. They are the ones developing skills and experience — vital human capital for any growing economy.

Among these dreary numbers are a few bright dots: Champaign-Urbana, Bloomington-Normal and Edwardsville. Each of these communities is home to a public university — with rising enrollment. Not surprisingly, DeKalb, Charleston, Macomb and Carbondale — where public university enrollments have been declining — are also experiencing population losses.

What's the takeaway? An educated population attracts businesses and jobs — which in turn attract more people.

Illinois has serious systemic problems: taxes, deficit spending, high costs to do business and more.

Some day, maybe the state's leaders will stop posturing and start working on solutions. If that day comes, they should note how education has proven to be a winning ingredient.


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