Demographic And Pension Disaster: Illinois Population Drops For Fifth Consecutive Year 

It is the same depressing story to which Illinoisans have grown accustomed: Population is collapsing and it's only getting worse.

Illinois had one of the largest population busts in the nation this year according to new data published Dec. 19 from the US Census Bureau. Illinois is the sixth-largest state, with a population estimated at 12,741,080. Since 2013, the state had seen more than 100,000 residents leave, when the population was 12.9 million. 

"Illinois suffered the second-largest numeric loss (45,116) of any state, following only New York, which was down 48,510 residents but has a much larger overall population of more than 19.5 million," said the Chicago Tribune.

The population bust was also evident in other "high tax" states such as West Virginia, Louisiana, Hawaii, Mississippi, Alaska, Connecticut, and Wyoming. No other states in the Midwest had declines like Illinois.

“I think in a way Illinois is kind of standing out in the Midwest,” William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., a not-for-profit public policy organization, told the Chicago Tribune.

“Illinois actually has a population loss, which means immigration and fertility isn’t enough to make up for the domestic outmigration. It says something about the relative pull of the economy of other states compared to Illinois," Frey added.

In the quarters before July 2017 dating back to the 2008 recession, Illinois experienced a job growth rate of 1.7%, in line with many other states. Data from the next twelve months that coincide to the day with census data, showed job growth in the state rapidly declined to .97%, 44th in the nation. 

The reason why residents are fleeing the state is not entirely clear, but there are many other factors, including migration patterns. Some of those factors are the state's weather, cost-of-living, high taxes, out of control crime, and more significant economic opportunity in other regions across the country.

“Our economic recovery has been a lot more sluggish,” said Brian Harger, a research associate with Northern Illinois University’s Center for Governmental Studies.

Earlier this month, Fitch Ratings said Illinois’ population decline has accelerated since the recession, there has been a large outflow of migration that has been uninterrupted since the mid-1920s. It is only in the last decade that the state's birthrate and immigration rates have not kept up with the increasing outflow of residents 

“The factors that have buffered this loss in the past, the birthrate and the level of foreign migration, have cooled off,” Harger said.

“The biggest concern isn’t just the loss of people, but it’s the aging population and that most of those leaving are of working age,” he said.

As a result of the population bust, Illinois is expected to lose one member of Congress after the apportionment process in 2021. This, accompanied with fewer electoral votes in presidential elections, leaves the state with a smaller voice in federal affairs.

With a population bust currently underway and an economic outlook that is stagnating, this is a perfect setup for the upcoming financial storm: America’s public pension system is at a breaking point, and the first shoe to drop will likely be Illinois, where the shortfall for the five state-run pension plans - for teachers, state workers, university employees, judges and lawmakers - in 2018 recently hit a record $134 billion despite strong markets...

... and even as Illinoisans contributed $8 billion dollars to the pension funds in 2018, $6 billion more than what they contributed in 2008.

As Wirepoints recently noted, "It just shows how unmanageable Illinois pensions have become. Billions in taxpayers contributions and above expected investment returns didn’t even make a dent in Illinois’ accumulated pension debt. In fact, the situation worsened for taxpayers and pensioners alike over the year. The pension hole is now larger by more than $4 billion."

Addiong insult to demographic injury, Illinois’ pension funds have collapsed – putting both state workers and taxpayers at risk – during one of the longest bull markets in history. Since the end of the Great Recession, the S&P 500 index has recovered and grown by 200 percent. During that same time, Illinois’ pension shortfall worsened by 72 percent, or $56 billion. In fiscal year 2009, the unfunded liability was “just” $78 billion. Today, it’s nearly $134 billion.


Some of the growth in debt was due to the pension funds changing their actuarial assumptions, including SURS dropping its assumed rate of return in 2018. Regardless, the systems’ overall downward trend is clear. And the warning this trend provides is even more stark: if the state’s pension debts continue to worsen during a period of remarkable market returns, imagine how those funds will fare when the next recession inevitably hits.