The Unstate of Illinois
Population tectonics threaten political upheaval
September 27, 1990
As I write, predictions are being made that the 2020 census will result in Illinois losing yet another seat in Congress, probably from Downstate. That will leave the state, which had 27 representatives in the U.S. House after World War II, with only 17.
Population change has been the big Illinois story over the whole of my journalism career—the shrinking of the state population compared to the rest of the country and the shift in population within the state. This column offers a Downstate perspective on an issue I would address again on the Politics & Policy page of Chicago Enterprise magazine.
Most of its citizens would agree that an Illinois with at least one fewer congressman in it would be a better Illinois. But editorialists—who regard politicians the way a personal injury lawyer regards car wrecks—have reacted to the preliminary census counts with dismay. The data confirm that Illinois' population remained essentially static in the 1980s while other parts of the nation grew; their gain was our loss, representatively speaking.
The way the census gets played as a news story reflects the market orientation of the media, which in turn has shaped our collective political consciousness. Significance is understood either in statewide terms or in purely local terms. (The latter shows itself in the grubby head-hunting by mayors eager to rack up maximum points in the game of population-based federal grants.) However, it is the intrastate or regional shifts in population that are most interesting, and potentially more significant.
The most profound story the numbers. tell is of the continuing diaspora from the Illinois countryside. Only 20 of the state's 102 counties showed population increases since 1980; virtually all of the 82 losers were rural counties. The causes ought to be familiar by now since some of them have been at work for a century. Changes in the ways farms are owned and run are tops, followed by cars, better roads, regional shopping malls, and cheap gas.
The effects are familiar too. People leaving the farms and small towns generally headed for cities in search of jobs. Such migrants swelled Springfield's population just after the turn of the century, lured by jobs in manufacturing, mining, and railroading. Giddy boosters in the years before World War I predicted that Springfield would some day be the Number Two city in the state, but other downstate cities boomed as well, and for the same reasons; East St. Louis, for example, nearly tripled its population in the twenty years after 1890.
That tide ebbed after the second great war. The jobs have moved on, and the people have moved on after them. Metropolitan Decatur has shrunk by nearly 11 percent since 1980, according to the preliminary census count, and Peoria by ten. The only downstate cities that grew—and they did so only modestly—were those such as Springfield or Champaign-Urbana whose economies are based on government spending. To speak of government as an industry is no longer to speak metaphorically.
The bright lights of the big city may attract some, but the average Illinoisan has an ambivalent attitude toward cities. He covets the wages that can be earned in them, but disdains them as places to live. He will settle in a smallish city sooner than a big one (or on the sparse fringes of a big one), assuming the former is prosperous. Those kinds of cities once were found downstate; today they stand in suburban Chicago. Virtually all the significant population growth in Illinois in the 1980s occurred in suburban Cook, DuPage, Lake, Will, and the rest of the collar counties.
Jobs were the draw. In early September the state's Department of Employment Security predicted that the Chicago-area economy will add 400,000 new jobs by 2000; during that time the other ninety-six Illinois counties combined are expected to generate only 166,000 new jobs. State economic predictions often ought to be dismissed as too rosy. (How can the world not look rosy to analysts who have state pensions and free parking s spaces?) It should be noted, however, that the jobs growth forecast for 1995 in the department's previous projection was reached six years early, in 1989. A recession could slow jobs growth in the collar counties, obviously, but the underlying economic forces at work on the state virtually guarantee that most new jobs that do open up will open up in northeast Illinois. The question is not if, in short, only when.
The result is a population boom of the kind that turned downstate towns into cities eighty years ago. Naperville has nearly doubled in population since 1980, according to the census bureau. Planners' projections show even more remarkable growth into the next century. By 2010, they calculate, Aurora's 148,000 people will likely rank it as Illinois' second largest city, as Peoria and Rockford continue to bleed people. Naperville, which lies immediately east of Aurora, will count 127,000 residents by then. Springfield, by comparison, will have at most 115,000 people, assuming it grows at the rate it did in the 1980s.
Suburban growth is not exactly an unexpected phenomenon. Twenty years ago it became clear that there were more people living in Chicago's suburbs than in the city itself. But while the boom transformed the state's demographics, it is only slowly transforming its politics. The population shifts of the last two decades are only imperfectly reflected in the General Assembly, (thanks to some creative work by Democrat-controlled legislative mapmakers) and any change that is not reflected in the General Assembly is not likely to be perceived by our media seers.
Eventually, the Chicago v. downstate construct by which we understand the clashes of politics, economics, and culture will have to be abandoned as outdated. The suburbs will become the dominant presence in the state as political districts are redrawn to reflect population shifts. The process can be delayed, and probably will be, but it won't be stopped.
So massive a shift in population is bound to cause the state to tilt, but in which direction? Downstaters typically lump Chicago and its suburbs together, but while towns like Hoffman Estates are universally referred to as Chicago suburbs, the identification is convenient rather than accurate. Bedroom communities that once were wholly dependent on the larger city have evolved their own diverse economies and political agendas. Most recent population growth is occurring in the newer postwar suburbs like Naperville or in independent towns that until recently stood well beyond the reach of Chicago's gravity. (Aurora is farther from Chicago than Springfield is from Decatur or Peoria is from Bloomington.) These towns are separate realms, beholden to the big city for nothing. Richard M. Daley traveled to Schaumburg last winter to address suburban mayors, the first Chicago mayor ever to pay court to his suburban colleagues; it was like Sadat going to Jerusalem.
Our traditional bipolar model for politics will have to be replaced with a tripartite one. How the new Chicago, downstate, and the suburbs will align themselves is impossible to predict, although that won't keep pundits from trying. On revenue issues it is not implausible to see Chicago lining up with downstaters against the suburbs; the last is where the taxable wealth of the state is being concentrated, and will be jealous of attempts by the other two, increasingly tax-dependent parts of the state to siphon it.
In the meantime we will need to expand our lexicon. To "Chicago" and "downstate" we will need to add a new term. The collar? The burbs? The ring? Or—given the fact that most of these places are no places in particular—Unstate? □