Each day, a plane full of Illi­noisans mov­ing out of state

Daily Southtown (Sunday) - - OPINION - Austin Berg Austin Berg, a writer for the Illi­nois Pol­icy In­sti­tute, wrote this col­umn for the Illi­noisNewsNet­work.

It’s the same grim story to which Illi­noisans have grown ac­cus­tomed: We’re shrink­ing. And it’s get­ting worse.

Newnum­bers re­leased Wed­nes­day fromtheU.S. Cen­sus Bu­reau paint a stark pic­ture.

The chaser is that pol­icy solutions are on the ta­ble to bring back some hope to Illi­nois. But be­fore you can fix the prob­lem, you need to un­der­stand it. Here’s the run­down of what the new data tell us. And what di­rec­tion they should point state law­mak­ers.

The head­line num­ber comes first: 45,116.

That’s how­much Illi­nois’ pop­u­la­tion shrank from July 2017 to July 2018.

It’s the fifth year in a row the state has lost peo­ple. And the fifth year in a row that the loss has got­ten worse. No other state finds it­self adrift in five con­sec­u­tive years of­wors­en­ing pop­u­la­tion de­cline.

Since Illi­nois’ pop­u­la­tion growth dipped into the red five years ago, Illi­nois has shrunk by more than 157,000 res­i­dents. It’s as if Joliet, Naperville or Rock­ford­were wiped off the map. Those are the state’s third-, fourth- and fifth­largest cities.

What’s driv­ing the pop­u­la­tion de­cline? Far more Amer­i­cans are leav­ing Illi­nois for other states than com­ing in. Illi­nois lost more than 114,000 peo­ple on net to other states over the year— an ex­o­dus al­most un­changed from the pre­vi­ous year.

One per­son ev­ery 4.6 min­utes. Or 313 each day.

That’s a daily pas­sen­ger plane full of Illi­noisans mov­ing to greener pas­tures, for two years straight. Most will never re­turn.

But who are these peo­ple? And­why are they leav­ing?

Govern­ment data show that those lead­ing the march out of Illi­nois are be­tween the ages of 25 and 54. In oth­er­words, they’re in their prime­work­ing years. This poses an­other prob­lem: When Illi­noisans able to bear chil­dren leave, fewer chil­dren are born Illi­noisans.

The state is hav­ing a baby bust.

Since 2011, Illi­nois has seen an 8.8 per­cent de­cline in births. That’s the fourth­worst slide in the na­tion and more than twice as se­vere a de­cline as the av­er­age state. Births still out­pace deaths. But the mar­gin is get­ting smaller ev­ery year.

That makes Illi­nois’ loss of peo­ple to other states – and fig­ur­ing out why those losses are hap­pen­ing – all the more im­por­tant. Nat­u­ral growth in the pop­u­la­tion­won’t be able to mask them.

Us­ing a methodology de­vel­oped by Fed­eral Re­serve econ­o­mist Joshua Gallin and data from the IRS, Illi­nois Pol­icy In­sti­tute re­search shows the pri­mary driver of Illi­nois’ out­mi­gra­tion over the past decade is aweak la­bor mar­ket, which in­cludes fac­tors such as tax pol­icy, the un­em­ploy­ment rate and­wage growth.

Taxes ap­pear to be a par­tic­u­lar pain point. Half of Illi­noisans told poll­sters they­wanted to leave the state in 2018, and theNo. 1 rea­son­was high taxes.

Clearly, the per­ma­nent in­come tax hike state law­mak­ers passed in July 2017 hasn’t helped fix the state’s peo­ple prob­lem. Fam­i­lies are re­ject­ing Illi­nois soil as a place to plant roots. And that poses ama­jor chal­lenge in fix­ing the state’s fis­cal prob­lems.

With fewer young peo­ple left to pick up the tab for Illi­nois’ hulk­ing pen­sion debt, for ex­am­ple, the math only be­comes more im­pos­si­ble.

This news, year af­ter year, is enough tomake the most op­ti­mistic Illi­noisan a hard­ened cynic. But since we knowa poor la­bor mar­ket is the pri­mary driver of this prob­lem, law­mak­ers should be look­ing at proven pro-growth poli­cies to re­v­erse the trend.

The first is a spend­ing cap tied to eco­nomic growth, which will pre­vent the need for fu­ture tax hikes and pro­vide cer­tainty to res­i­dents and busi­nesses.

But then there’s pen­sion prob­lems.

With­out re­form, fewer Illi­noisans will be left to shovel an ever-larger pile of debt. Moody’s In­vestors Ser­vice ear­lier this year pegged Illi­nois as hav­ing the high­est pen­sion-debtto-rev­enue ra­tio ever recorded for a state. But a speech last­week from ChicagoMayor Rahm Emanuel pointed a light to­ward some relief: a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment.

Specif­i­cally, the amend­ment­would pro­tect all pen­sion ben­e­fits that pub­lic em­ploy­ees have al­ready earned, but al­low­for rea­son­able changes to fu­ture ben­e­fit ac­cru­als. That means the state couldn’t slash a penny from­cur­rent re­tirees’ checks. But law­mak­ers could fi­nally make re­forms, like end­ing au­to­matic, com­pound­ing 3 per­cent ben­e­fit in­creases through­out re­tire­ment.

Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker and the new Gen­eral Assem­bly­will have a lot on their plates next year as they try to pa­per over yet an­other big bud­get deficit.

But Illi­nois’ big­gest bud­get prob­lem is its shrink­ing pop­u­la­tion.

And if law­mak­ers don’t take steps to­ward spend­ing re­form, they shouldn’t ex­pect their con­stituents to hang around.

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