A fellow sat down next to me recently on a flight from San Antonio, Texas, to Chicago, and he let out a sigh.
I asked if he was heading home, and he just shook his head and explained that he was in the process of moving from Chicago to Texas. The 50-something fellow said he was returning to Illinois to get his convertible and drive it south.
I asked him why he was moving, and he told me it was “the taxes and the politics.”
It sounded familiar.
In the two decades that I’ve been writing this column, I’ve received hundreds of letters and emails from folks leaving the Land of Lincoln. The reasons they cited revolve around employment opportunities, tax burden and the state’s political future.
According to data from the Internal Revenue Service, Illinois has experienced a net loss of 160,000 residents since 2010. That’s more than the population of Springfield, Peoria, Rockford or the Illinois Quad Cities.
Illinois and West Virginia are the only states that lost population during that time.
While middle-class people make up the bulk of those leaving the state, the group that had the highest proportion leave the state was comprised of people earning more than $200,000 per year. Proportionately, the second-largest group leaving was comprised of those earning between $100,000 and $200,000.
That’s bad news.
Why is that bad news? Well, have you ever worked for someone poorer than yourself? Few of us have.
An inevitable consequence of losing these high earners is that they will invest elsewhere. That means fewer jobs for people in Illinois. And that, of course, means more people leaving the state.
A second consequence is that the tax base shrinks. This means that, with fewer people paying taxes, those who remain have to pay more to support the government that we have. Of course, higher taxes mean more people leaving Illinois.
It’s a vicious cycle that shows little reason to abate.
In 2016, the Paul Simon Institute at Southern Illinois University conducted a statewide poll and found that 47 percent of respondents would like to leave Illinois and 51 percent would prefer to remain in the state. Just under 2 percent said they didn’t know.
Taxes are the biggest reason people want to leave; the weather is next, followed by government and jobs. Specifically, 27 percent cited taxes as the motive for departing; 16 percent said weather; 15 percent cited government; and 13 percent named jobs and education.
Illinois has the second-highest property tax in the nation, just behind New Jersey.
For years, politicians have denied that Illinois has a problem with population loss. Now, most acknowledge the depth of the problem. However, few propose solutions. It’s one of those problems they would rather ignore than address.
That’s unfortunate. We deserve better.
Editor’s note: Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist and a freelance reporter. He can be contacted at email@example.com.