Stories from the Illinois Exodus

High taxes, crime rates, and lack of opportunity cause residents to flee Illinois and post-industrial cities like Rockford.

I was born in Chicago and raised in the northwest suburbs. I moved to Rockford, Illinois after graduate school in 2008, where I hoped to make a life for myself. As my longtime readers know, I got involved in local politics and worked hard to promote the local community and address its social ills. Even as a student at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, I promoted Midwestern culture and urged my friends to stay in Illinois and fight to make it better. I honestly didn’t think I would ever leave.

Years went by and more and more of my friends and acquaintances moved away for greener pastures. Finally, I did too, enlisting in the Army and seeking to make a difference somewhere else. It became painfully clear I would have to uproot if I wanted to dramatically change my circumstances. The 2020 census will show just how many people joined this mass exodus. According to the latest estimates, Illinois is among the fastest shrinking states in terms of population, and Rockford is 15th in the country for highest percentage of population loss.

Since 2010, Rockford’s population has decreased by 5 percent. It was once the largest city in Illinois outside Chicago… it’s now the sixth. In December 2019, numerous websites reported Illinois as a whole saw six straight years of population loss. Anecdotally, I can name at least a dozen or more friends who have moved to other states over the past ten years, many with their families. I think when the final census data for 2020 is released, it’s going to be bad.

Katie [last name withheld] moved to Los Angeles seven years ago looking for better opportunities. “Before that whenever I looked for art related jobs I found that LA and NYC had way more posts than Chicago…” she explained. “Then there was one blizzard too many and by January 2013 I had flown to LA, rented a bed in a hostile, and spent 100% of my time looking for work. This town is hard, I love it tho. I’ve been working in graphic design ever since, I’ve never lived someplace so diverse, and the underground theater/bar scene out here is wild (when the covid isn’t on). We miss St. Charles and Chicago badly and often but have no regrets except maybe we should’ve done it sooner.”

Other people I spoke to cited Illinois’ dysfunctional government as a reason to leave. Tanya Kelley originally moved to Ohio in 2013 to be closer to family, but “if that hadn’t been our choice then, the deterioration of state government over the years since then would have sent us packing anyway,” she said. “Although being in Coles county did minimize the effects of the more destructive policies. From what I hear, that’s not so much the case now.”

“There are four main reasons why I left Illinois,” Steve Litteral, a friend and former museum director in Rockford, told me. “Taxes, crime, the Second Amendment, and corruption. When I lived in Rockford after I got married, we were paying about $5,000 in property taxes on our house. We paid more in property taxes than we did on our actual mortgage on a monthly basis. What did we get for that huge amount of taxes? Bad roads, horrible public schools in RPS 205, and a laundry list of other problems that local leaders did not seemed interested in solving. Now I own a house in Tennessee worth 300% more than our first house in Rockford, and I pay a little over $900 a year in property taxes. I also do not pay any state income taxes in Tennessee, and we have much better roads and schools where kids are not afraid for their safety.

“The second reason is crime, and Rockford was and still is a crime-infested town. We eventually moved to Ogle County, but I still worked in southwest Rockford. A neighborhood that had obvious drug deals on the corners, prostitution, gang violence, and a homeless problem. I also heard gunfire at least five times a day… Some nights were really bad, and I actually had bullets fly over my head from guys who were shooting at each other over a block away. The police in the area were great, but Rockford leaders have been fighting with the police department for years, and they are undermanned, underpaid, and stretched to their limits.

“The third reason is the Second Amendment. It took years to get concealed-carry in the state, but by then, I knew I was leaving. I worked at a park in Rockford, which was in one of the worst neighborhoods in the city. But I could not have my pistol with me when I went to go check on an alarm at 3 o’clock in the morning because parks and a laundry list of other places are considered no-go zones for people who choose to defend themselves instead of waiting over 30 minutes for the police. I brought it up to the park district, and they laughed at me. ‘Why do you need to carry a pistol at the park?’ These are the same people who work in an old post office built like a bunker with security doors, and their own police department to protect them. If you don’t work there, you can’t get into about 90% of the building without going through security. Local and state officials take their own security seriously, but not the average citizen who pays the high taxes.

“Finally, corruption. Illinois has had numerous governors and other politicians serve time in prison for corruption, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. The crap I saw at the local level was horrendous. Certain companies and unions were taken care of by politicians who were giving them a cut of the action. The park district made a deal with the unions so that if maintenance or construction was needed on a park district property, we had to use a short list of businesses to fix our equipment. They had to pay ‘prevailing wages,’ which was code for they had to be a union or you couldn’t hire them even though their work was just as good, and they would save you money. I would get bids for projects, and the park district would not pick the best company at the best price. They would pick the union that was charging much more, and they would take much more time.

“I was told once told that if we didn’t pick a certain company for a project, they would put a huge inflatable rat in front of our property, which was a public museum. I told them if they did, it would get popped before it was inflated. They never brought the rat.

“All of these things (the high taxes, corruption, crime, etc.) is a perfect storm that is making businesses leave and citizens follow the jobs. My wife and I left our families and friends to move to Tennessee in 2018. Even though we miss everyone, our quality of life is much better. The taxes and fees are a fraction of what they were in Illinois. Unemployment is low. Crime is very low compared to Rockford. I live in a city about the same size called Clarksville. It is the polar opposite of Rockford. The schools are some of the best in the state, I’ve never heard a gunshot (unless it was New Years Eve) and people are proud to live here. They have a pride in their community which is really lacking in Rockford. Also the economy is booming down here. We have a lot of jobs and low unemployment. Tennessee rates 3rd among states that are fiscally healthy. They have four times the money to cover bills compared to Illinois. I should have moved years ago.”

Cindy Huber, a retired special education teacher in Rockford, is planning to leave soon. “High taxes, high crime all over the city, unsafe community and to move closer to some of my family are some of the reasons that I’m moving in a month and a half,” she told me. “I will miss my friends, the family that are here, my church that’s here, and the house that I’ve lived in so long. But it’s time to leave.”

Even if Illinois’ population stays stagnant or only declines a little bit, that still has big political repercussions for the state. Every ten years, according to census.gov, the U.S. census determines congressional apportionment, redistricting, and distribution of more than $675 billion dollars annually to cities across the nation. The U.S. House of Representatives is fixed at 435 members, and the number of representatives for each state is determined by the population count. That translates to real political power in our nation’s capital.

Illinois currently has 18 U.S. representatives in Congress. In 1980, it had 24. As a result of the 2020 census, Illinois will likely see that number decline even more. “We may lose one or two seats in Congress, which lowers our influence,” Brian Harger, program coordinator with Northern Illinois University’s Illinois Health Information Technology Regional Extension Center, told the Peoria Journal Star.

Why are people leaving? Weather might play a role, but the people I talked to were much more concerned about finding a better job and a better quality of life for themselves and their family. Many felt frustrated with high taxes, crime, and dysfunctional state government. After I left, I learned our state government was a joke to many people living in other states. Our state couldn’t even pass a budget for over two years. Now, Illinois politicians are back to their old tricks, planning to borrow $5 billion from the federal government to cover the state’s budget shortfall. What an embarrassment.

I don’t know what will happen to Illinois, but it’s clear from both population data and anecdotal evidence that tens of thousands are voting with their feet and seeking prosperity elsewhere.

Author: Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

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