Population loss has devastated Midwestern communities for decades.
Is it inevitable? What can be done to stop the hemorrhaging?
As already reported in an ongoing series, residents are worried about the myriad problems caused by population loss, ranging from reduced city services to higher tax bills.
So what’s the plan? What are leaders and institutions in the community actually doing — if anything?
To find out, we reached out to municipal, county and state leaders with three sets of questions:
- Is population loss a problem? If it is, why does it seem that no one is talking about it?
- Can population loss be reversed in our area? Should our communities fight depopulation, or accept it as inevitable and plan accordingly?
- What two to five practical, actionable things are you working on to address population loss?
The responses — which are excerpted below — varied in urgency and vision.
Solutions to depopulation are as complicated as the problems, and they’ll require collaboration across sometimes siloed parts of society.
“I don’t think it’s inevitable that every rural county is going to shrink,” said Christopher Merrett, a director and professor at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University.
“It would take a concerted effort at local, state and federal levels — buy-in at three scales — to reverse local population decline in the Midwest.”
1. Is population loss a problem? If it is, why does it seem that no one is talking about it?”
Rachel Bruce, planner at the Bi-State Regional Commission: "Population loss is a problem not just at the regional level, but at the state and even national level. More recently, state-level losses in Illinois are perhaps the most talked about: From 2010 to 2018, 93 of the 102 counties in Illinois lost population. In that same time frame, 69 of Iowa’s 99 counties lost population, as did 81% of rural counties in the entire Midwest. Interestingly, Scott County is one of only nine counties in Iowa that have seen a growth rate from 2010 to 2018 that is faster than the state of Iowa as a whole.
"One analysis of U.S Commerce Department data makes an interesting comparison between population loss at the county level and non-farm employment growth or decline after the 2008 recession. Between 2008 and 2017, Rock Island County saw a 6.8% loss in non-farm employment and a 1.8% loss in population. On the flip side, non-farm employment in Scott County grew by 2.1%, while the population grew 6.6%. This correlation is not the same for all Illinois and Iowa counties, but it does suggest the widely accepted trend that population loss is, in part, a result of a decrease in middle-skill jobs."
Douglas Maxeiner, city administrator, East Moline: "Population loss is a problem in that the State of Illinois distributes many revenues to municipalities on a per capita basis. The Local Government Distributive Fund (income tax and use taxes) are provided to municipalities based on the most recent Census numbers. If population counts decrease, a municipality receives less funding for services, which will increase reliance on property taxes. Increasing property taxes are frequently used as a reason why population is leaving Illinois, so this becomes a declining spiral." In addition, population loss is indicative of larger issues in the community. Growing communities showing signs of investment are healthy. Shrinking communities with little or no new investment are less so."
Richard Brunk, chairman of the Rock Island County Board: "I do believe that population loss is a concern. While it may seem that no one is talking about it, area officials from all of our communities are constantly looking for ways to spur interest and growth within Rock Island County."
U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Moline: "Yes, population loss is an issue in our region. But it stems from a set of larger challenges — many of which I am working to address through my role on both the Appropriations and Agriculture Committees. That’s why we need to make sure children and their families have a chance to succeed in areas like ours. That means partnering with communities to provide the access to the tools, resources and opportunities every community needs to thrive. And it includes tackling issues like access to health care; economic opportunity and workforce training; and building infrastructure like broadband, highways, water infrastructure, rail access, and locks and dams."
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State Rep. Tony McCombie, R-Savanna: "Population loss is a HUGE problem in Illinois, especially in the northwest region where we border Iowa and Wisconsin. My constituents contact me several times per week about the population decline, their desire to leave our state, or their fear their children will be forced to start careers and families far from home. Unfortunately, Illinois has lost population every year since 2014; last year there was a decline of over 45,000 people — that is bigger than the city of Moline."
2. “Can population loss be reversed in our area? Should our communities fight depopulation, or accept it as inevitable and plan accordingly?”
Maxeiner, East Moline administrator: "We are attempting to reverse negative growth with new public and private investment in East Moline. The redevelopment of The Bend and Rust Belt are examples of private development reversing course. The new apartments at The Bend will add 70 to 80 households to East Moline."
Mayor Stephanie Acri, Moline: "Population trends are contingent on some things that are beyond the control of a local city council and municipal staff; however, we are working to make the adjustments that are within our control to best position Moline to be as attractive as possible to residents and businesses. ... I believe that with a thoughtful strategy and a focused investment of our economic development efforts, we can maintain and possibly increase the population of Moline over the upcoming years."
State Rep. Mike Halpin, D-Rock Island: "Rather than fight population loss directly, it's important to focus our effort on providing a stable base of infrastructure, good-paying jobs and education, which will then lead to growth."
Bruce, Bi-State Commission: "Population loss can absolutely be reversed. Bi-State has recently been working with Rock Island County on an update to the county’s comprehensive plan, and in doing so, we have stressed that population projections are not set in stone. Rock Island County and other Illinois counties can acknowledge population losses while also acknowledging that there are many factors that shape a community’s future. Efforts like comprehensive planning can help guide continued development in order to fulfill the goals for economic development, attraction and retention."
Brunk, Rock Island County Board: "Communities should make every responsible effort to position themselves as a destination, someplace people are drawn to."
While the county’s population may never reach its levels of the 1970s, I believe Rock Island County has a lot to offer its residents, and as efforts to improve and promote our communities continue, the population will level off, and eventually rebound to some degree."
Bustos, U.S. representative: "While population loss is not inevitable, change is. Take an issue like climate change and this year’s flooding that has so impacted our rural producers. But if we work ahead and plan, tackling climate change could create real new economic opportunities for areas like ours."
McCombie, state representative: "Communities should not accept population loss as inevitable. Regulatory burdens passed in Illinois are prohibiting the creation of economic activity, stifling our true potential. We live in a beautiful place, centrally located in the nation to be the leader in manufacturing, transportation and agriculture. Raising taxes, increasing the size of government, and adding unfunded mandates on our schools and communities is NOT the answer."
3. “What practical, actionable things are you working on to address population loss?”
Maxeiner, East Moline administrator: "As previously mentioned, The Bend and Rust Belt are examples of the city getting aggressive in our economic development efforts. We have partnered with private developers to spur new development and redevelopment in our community. Public investment spurring private investment is critical to our success. ... Another example of our efforts is in eliminating blight and dilapidated housing stock and raising the bar on property standards. ... These efforts don’t pay off overnight, but we feel we’re headed in the right direction and are optimistic for the future of East Moline."
Halpin, state representative.: "I've been consistently fighting efforts to have Illinois participate in a race to the bottom where we drastically cut services and regulations so that we appear more 'business friendly.' The way to be business friendly is to provide an attractive community, with roads, fire and police protection, education, parks systems, so that people want to live, work and shop here."
Bustos, U.S. representative: "I introduced the Social Determinants Accelerator Act of 2019. This bill helps states like Illinois address major health care challenges in our communities, like physician shortages, food deserts and safe housing — all of which are factors that impact our overall health and well-being, but also can determine where folks decide to live."
McCombie: "Stop overregulating businesses, municipalities and local schools: The first thing we can do is stop drafting and passing legislation that adds burdensome regulations and unfunded mandates — often leading to property tax increases to fund these misguided policies and unnecessary layers of bureaucracy. In the legislature, I have become a leading voice against unfunded mandates."