How 7 Midwest Illinois Counties Fared Over 10 Years
Demographic change, 2010 to 2020
Source: United States Census Bureau
(-2.4%) Henry County: 50,486 to 49,284
(-4.5%) Mercer County: 16,434 to 15,699
(-4.9%) Warren County: 17,707 to 16,835
(-5.6%) Knox County: 52,919 to 49,967
(-9.3%) Fulton County: 37,069 to 33,609
(-12.9%) Henderson County: 7,331 to 6,387
(-16.5%) McDonough County: 32,612 to 27,238
GALESBURG — As Illinois as a whole loses population and becomes more diverse, so are local counties.
For the most part, seven rural counties in west-central Illinois — Knox, Warren, Fulton, McDonough, Mercer, Henderson and Henry — are seeing larger population declines than other areas of the state.
“It’s part of a general trend in Illinois. Urban areas have grown faster. Rural areas, if they grew, they grew more slowly,” said Christopher Merrett, director of the Illinois Institute of Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University.
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Together, these seven counties have lost more than 15,000 people, 7.2%, over the past decade, according to 2020 census data, and each county has seen the percentage of its non-white population increase.
Ken Springer, president of the Knox County Area Partnership for Economic Development, said modern economic development is as much an effort to grow and retain population as it is an effort to create jobs.
“Population underpins all aspects of economic development. It’s the foundation for both your community’s workforce and your community’s consumer base,” Springer said.
State budget stalemate hurts WIU
The steepest decline recorded among the seven counties was in McDonough County, where the tally showed a loss of 16.5% – or 5,374 residents.
Merrett attributed part of Macomb and McDonough County’s decline to the state’s budget stalemate from 2015 to 2017.
The stalemate not only led to many layoffs at state universities, but also caused uncertainty among students.
“What we saw during the state budget stalemate was an exit, a brain drain,” Merrett said.
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Other downstate communities with regional public universities have also experienced steep population declines over the past decade.
Coles County, home of Eastern Illinois University, saw a 13% drop in population, and Jackson County, home of Southern Illinois University, saw a down 12%.
With WIU students on distance learning and an undetermined number living off-campus at the count, Merrett thinks the decline may be overstated.
“I believe the pandemic has contributed to the undercount,” Merrett said. “I’m not sure the actual number is as low as it is.”
Macomb Mayor Mike Inman said there is a long history of undercoverage in the city due to university students who he said were exacerbated by the pandemic in 2020.
During the last census, the city petitioned the Census Bureau for a special census, which the city plans to do again now.
Merrett said making higher education affordable and state universities competitive is part of the solution to population decline, but it will also require other policies — and planning.
“We need to be more serious about strategic planning, helping communities be mindful and thoughtful about where their communities are headed,” Merrett said.
Strategies for this include incorporating broad community input and a focus on entrepreneurship and business succession plans, and engaging and encouraging young people to stay here, a- he declared.
Counties See Diversity Gains
Of the seven counties, those with the highest diversity indices — the likelihood of two randomly selected residents being from different racial and ethnic groups — are Knox and Warren, at 35.8% and 34.4%, respectively. .
These counties also have the smallest percentage of residents reporting their race as only white and have seen the greatest gains in diversity over the past decade.
From 2010 to 2020, while population declined 4.9% overall with a loss of 872 people, Warren County’s white population fell from 88.9% to 80.2%, largely because of Monmouth’s employer Smithfield Foods, as immigrants moved to the area for jobs and to raise families.
Some of the increase in diversity in neighboring Knox County could also be attributed to Smithfield.
Knox County’s white population fell from 85.3% in 2010 to 79.3% in 2020, with the overall population decreasing by 5.6% during this period, for a loss of 2,952 residents.
Merrett said rural areas should welcome immigrants as part of the solution to a severe labor shortage amid an aging population, lower birth rates and fewer young adults.
“There are probably at least two dozen counties in southern Illinois whose population loss would be even greater had it not been for an influx of immigrants,” Merrett said. “Nationally, I think we need to think about immigration reform in a way that would help repopulate rural Illinois, rural main street economies.”
Monmouth Town Administrator Lew Steinbrecher believes the population is larger in the town than the census indicates.
“If you look at the diversity in the community, the school district and the workforce, the non-white population here, that’s probably where we may have missed families and individuals,” Steinbrecher said.
Steinbrecher said existing community leadership programs that embrace and recognize minority and immigrant populations and a new housing development, Monmouth Townhomes, on the horizon will help drive growth in Monmouth.
But still more housing is needed to realize this potential.
“Given the needs, the number of jobs in this community, we could support new housing developments,” Steinbrecher said.
Agriculture industry adds stability to Henry County
The smallest population decline among the seven counties was in Henry County at 2.4%, which is attributed to both the county’s location and its economic diversification within the agricultural industry.
“They are part of the commuting shed in the Quad Cities. All of these communities have many people who continue to commute. It has to do with economic diversification and connecting to a larger metropolitan area,” Merrett said.
Jim Kelly, Henry County’s director of economic development, said the county’s infrastructure is in good shape and its agricultural industry is diverse among its 15 communities, including wind towers and two ethanol plants.
“We’re a sought-after county when it comes to farming activities like that,” Kelly said.
Merrett said agriculture in general is a driver of depopulation.
“Farming is this very interesting process. The more productive it is, the fewer people it needs,” Merrett said.
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That could be at the heart of steeper population declines in Fulton and Henderson counties, where census figures show declines of 12.9% and 9.3%, respectively.
In Fulton County, that’s a loss of 3,460 residents over a decade, according to the census, while Henderson County lost 944.
Merrett noted that Fulton County’s population peaked in 1910, with industries ranging from coal mining to rural manufacturing declining over the years.
“For those from Fulton County going to Peoria, Peoria has also lost population,” Merrett said.