Read part one, part two and part three of the ongoing series about population changes in the Quad-City region.
Luis Moreno remembers touring the International Harvester Farmall Plant, in Rock Island, in the early 1980s.
Moreno, an East Moline resident who serves on the Rock Island County Board, was in high school. He remembers his tour guide’s excitement for new technologies that would, it was claimed, “add lots of new jobs” on the factory floor.
“I knew it was BS,” Moreno said in a recent interview. “I was a high school senior, and even I knew that wasn’t the case.”
Just a few years after his tour, the Farmall Plant closed, never to return.
“Automation has taken over jobs,” Moreno said. “So people have to go elsewhere to find jobs.”
Manufacturing remains a backbone of the Midwest economy. But the number of local manufacturing jobs is shrinking, thanks to macroscopic forces that dwarf any company or city: automation, consolidation, and globalization.
The sad tale of International Harvester is a common story across the region, where communities are depopulating and economies hurting.
In Rock Island County, the population is shrinking, as it is in across Western Illinois.
Why? Understanding population loss means recognizing a complex, decades-old problem that lacks a single cause — or a single solution.
Can anything be done about it?
Since 1990, the Quad-Cities metro area has lost 5,400 manufacturing jobs, or about a fifth of the manufacturing jobs that existed in 1990, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
That’s more lost jobs than in any other category measured by the bureau.
A major culprit was automation, or the process by which robots and other machines replace human workers. More than a science-fiction trope, or a strictly urban phenomenon, automation has disrupted thousands of jobs in the rural Heartland.
“Far more people are involved in manufacturing in non-metro Illinois than farming," said Christopher Merrett, director, and professor in the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University. "Manufacturing is not just important in cities with more than 100,000 people. It’s important in Macomb, and Quincy, and Effingham. Now they’re automating.”
Evidence suggests that the downward spiral of manufacturing is almost certain to continue as automation barrels on.
A recent report from Oxford Economics predicted that machines could replace 20 million manufacturing jobs in the next 11 years. Experts have warned that the United States is ill-prepared for the “jobs apocalypse” that automation might soon unleash.
But manufacturing jobs were also hit hard by trade, particularly with Asia. As China became a major exporter over the past 20 years, some believe that American jobs have been outsourced overseas.
One research paper from 2015 published in the “Journal of Labor Economics” found that import competition with China was a “major force” behind job losses in American manufacturing, with as many as 2.4 million jobs lost between 1999 and 2011.
The long fall of local agriculture
Over the last half-century, farms in the U.S. have become larger in size and fewer in number. Total output has grown, but the number of agriculture jobs has fallen precipitously.
Thanks to technology, farms are more efficient than ever. Fewer are needed to produce even more crops.
The result is a trend of farm consolidation, in which the biggest agriculture companies buy up land to achieve economies of scale.
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For consumers, this has often meant lower prices on foodstuff.
For many farmers, though, this has meant an end to their business, a way of life and a family tradition that goes back generations.
According to data from the U.S. Census of Agriculture, a comprehensive survey of the nation’s farms from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the number of farms in Illinois has dropped consistently since World War II.
Between 1974 and 2017, the most recent Census year, the number of farms in Illinois declined by 35%.
That trend has slammed communities across western Illinois. In Rock Island County, the number of farms has declined by 28% over those 43 years; 34% in Henry County; 36% in Mercer County; and 38% in Whiteside County.
At the same time, the average acreage of farms has increased drastically. In 2017, the average farm in Whiteside County was 387 acres. That represents an increase of almost 50% since 1974.
Farm consolidation has transformed economies across western Illinois.
In 1974, almost three-quarters of Illinois farm operators considered farming their “primary” occupation. In 2017, just 44% did.
Since World War II, agricultural output has steadily improved even as the number of farm jobs has dropped sharply. Though that trend has leveled off — agriculture has boomed since the Great Recession — recent jobs gains don't erase decades of loss.
"Agricultural mechanization profoundly changed downstate Illinois. That’s the reason why we see so many counties peak in population 100 years ago," said Merrett, the professor at WIU. "They were farm-dependent, and when they all found out they should buy a John Deere tractor, they needed far fewer farmers."
Dropping birth rates
Many Quad-Citians interviewed for this series pointed out to a more natural explanation for population loss: births and deaths.
Between 2007 and 2017, fertility rates fell across the country: in rural counties, by 12%; in small and medium-metro counties by 16%, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).
A report from researchers at the NCHS found that “since the most recent peak in the total fertility rate (the estimated number of lifetime births expected per 1,000 women) in 2007, the United States has experienced a decreasing total fertility rate and an increasing mean, or average, age of mothers at first birth.”
In Illinois, the total fertility rate has fallen about 15% between 2007 and 2017. In Iowa, that rate fell 10%.
And although it’s difficult to find reliable fertility data on the local level, municipal and county leaders said that they’ve observed a slowing replacement rate.
Meanwhile, the Quad-Cities population is aging.
Eight years ago, Rock Island County's median age was 40.0 years. In 2018, the median age had risen to 40.4 years, according to Census estimates. In Scott County, the median age rose to 38.4 years.
Rock Island County's number of residents under 18 years old fell by about 4% over the past eight years. The number of residents age 65 years or older, meanwhile, jumped by 16%.
But data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that Rock Island County, as well as most river counties on the Iowa side — including Scott, Clinton, Dubuque, and Muscatine counties — had more births than deaths between 2010 and 2018.
In other words, the issue for shrinking counties isn’t only a lethargic birth rate. It’s that residents are leaving.
Why the unequal out-migration?
According to data from the Census Bureau, Scott County had a net domestic migration of minus-35 residents between 2010 and 2018, meaning that on balance Scott County had just 35 residents leave the county in those eight years.
Rock Island County, by contrast, had a net domestic migration of minus-10,274 residents over that time.
Why are so many people fleeing Rock Island County?
In the next installment of the series, the Dispatch-Argus will examine the reasons that many believe explain why the Illinois Quad-Cities are losing people at rates far in excess of Scott County: taxes, real estate, and public perception.