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Illinois: From Pop. 2,500 to 12.7 Million in 200 Years

By Steve Rensberry, Editor

Illinois became the 21st state on Dec. 3, 1818, beginning in the south and moving northward, until by 1857 that big metropolis to the north of us dominated the state’s business and industry as a major lake and canal port. Location is key, they say.  At the time of the state’s founding the estimated population was, as you would expect, dismal, with approximately 2,500 people. By 1820 that number had risen to about 55,000, and by 1840 to 476,183.

To say the state’s population was skyrocketing would be an understatement. By 1880, Illinois’ population it had surpassed 3 million people and by 1900 it was at 4.9 million, a trend that would pretty much continue into the early 1990s, plateauing around 11.4 million people almost for the entire decade before hitting a high of 12.89 million people in 2013. The year 2014 will go down in history, however, as the first in the state’s 200-year history to experience negative population growth, with an estimated 12.7 million people in 2019 and a projected 12.65 million in 2020.

Given such dramatic growth over the past two centuries — from 2,500 to 12.7 million — can the state stand to lose a few people? I should say so! Is it a sign that the state’s fiscal woes have finally pushed it to a tipping point? A lot of people think it is. What’s less understood, however, is what caused the plateau in the 1980s, and whether fiscal woes are all or just part of the problem. I’d welcome input from any economic experts out there with a definitive answer. I tend to think just about all of it is more complex than we’re expected to believe. According to census officials, Illinois is among 10 other states that were losing population as of 2018. These include West Virginia, Illinois, Vermont, Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Mississippi. That’s quite a diverse group, if you ask me.

The impact of population loss during a labor shortage, which some economists fear is happening right now, is a topic for another day.

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