Illinois' population has grown, not declined

US Census Bureau admits population count was inaccurate

Illinois peaked at 27 US House seats after the 1910 Census and subsequent reapportionment. That lasted until the 1940 Census, when Illinois dropped to 26 seats in Congress. We've been steadily losing ground ever since. It's not that we lost population, it's that other states in the West and the South grew much faster. California had just 11 congressional districts as a result of the 1910 Census. It now has 53.

Our downward trajectory has often been demoralizing, but even more so during the past decade as professional naysayers and outlets like the Chicago Tribune editorial board trumpeted annual Census estimates which showed huge, six-figure population losses.

By December 2020, those annual census estimates showed Illinois had lost about 240,000 people, or 2% of its population.

"Illinois is a deepening population sinkhole flanked by states that are adding people, businesses, jobs," the Tribune editorial board opined. "The estimated Illinois population is 12,587,530, down more than 240,000 since the 2010 census. That's more than Waukegan and Naperville, combined."

The paper went on: "So tell us again, Democratic power brokers who rule Illinois. Tell us what great jobs you're doing. Tell us that these worsening annual population losses aren't an indictment of anti-jobs, high-spending policies. Tell us it's just snowbirds fleeing the weather here. Tell us you need to keep raising taxes."

When the official 2020 Census count showed those previous estimates were wildly wrong and Illinois' net population loss was "only" 18,000 people, those same folks either changed the subject or harumphed that, whatever the case, Illinois was still a net loser and had fallen to the rank of sixth largest state behind Pennsylvania.

To this day, political candidates and pundits still regularly trumpet our losses as evidence that we are a state in horrific decline while offering simplistic policy prescriptions based on numbers that have, as of last week, turned out to be more inaccurate than we ever knew.

As you probably know by now, the US Census Bureau admitted last week that it had screwed up Illinois' decennial headcount and the state actually grew by about 250,000 people – that's almost a 500,000-person swing from the December 2020 estimate. We're back to being the fifth largest state and our population has surpassed 13 million people for the first time ever.

"This is excellent news," Illinois Senate President Don Harmon said in a statement issued hours after the Census Bureau admitted its blunder. "It confirms what most of us already know: Illinois is a great place to live and work. We need more people cheering for Illinois and fewer spelunking for misery."

I cannot imagine anyone actually cheering for Illinois. We're just not that way here. Pessimism is in our collective bones, partly because it has been beaten into our beings for so many years by opinion leaders, and partly because, well, we do indeed suck at so many things.  

In reality, more people leave Illinois in search of greater economic opportunities, lower costs of living or even better winter weather than move here. It's still a problem that must be dealt with.

But this eager acceptance of Illinois' decline as an overwhelming cold, hard scientific fact needs to be reexamined by the news media, which has repeatedly perpetuated what has apparently turned out to be a widely believed myth. The Tribune has almost seemed to revel in the stories of Illinois' population loss. And where the Tribune goes, so goes most of the rest of the state's news outlets.

You don't have to cheerlead for Illinois. Nobody would buy that, anyway. But the almost perverse pleasure some get at running down this state's already bad reputation needs to be called out.

And what about those annual population estimates, which turned out to be almost 500,000 Illinoisans below the final number released last week?

US Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi sits on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Census Bureau. Back in January, Krishnamoorthi asked the Census Bureau for a methodological review of its annual state population estimates.

Last week, Rep. Krishnamoorthi again pressed the Census Bureau for answers, this time about why Illinois was so grossly undercounted in the decennial census. The agency owes him, and the rest of us, some answers. Now.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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