Illinois, Cook County Population Declines not Surprising

Around this time every semester, with just less than a month remaining before my last final exam, I start to get antsy. I feel restless. I’m ready to pack up my dorm room and move somewhere else, start new projects, see a different part of the world.

A lot of this probably has to do with how I grew up. From third through eighth grade, I spent the school years in Kansas with my dad, and summers and breaks in Texas with my mom. In high school, my mom moved to Germany, so I started spending summers there. But then, during my junior year, I joined my mom in Germany, living there almost full time until I graduated.

The way I grew up made me a master packer, able to tell just by lifting my suitcase whether or not it was under the 50-pound weight limit. I can adapt to new situations quickly and easily. I’m able to navigate airport terminals, bus stations and train systems like a pro.

But as soon as I get too comfortable somewhere, I’m ready to move on. I have an internal alarm clock that goes off when it seems I’ve been standing still for too long.

That alarm clock is ringing right now, and I’ll have to ignore it until the end of the semester, when the summer break will allow me to satisfy my wanderlust. But since this seems to be a perennial problem for me, I need to figure out how I can deal with it after graduation, when I have more freedom to choose where I live and what my life looks like.

I’m a junior, so I don’t have much time left at Loyola. I haven’t drawn out any kind of comprehensive post-college plan for myself, but I do know this: The way things are looking right now, I’m not likely to stay in Chicago, or even Illinois, for very long.

It seems I’m not alone in that assessment, either. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest report, released March 24, Cook County led the nation in population loss in 2015. Nearly 10,500 residents in total left, choosing to make their homes somewhere else. Illinois was second only to West Virginia in statewide population loss, with 22,194 people packing up and heading out of the state in total.

I’m just one college student among hundreds of thousands in this state. I can’t speak for every other 18- to 22-year-old in Illinois. But if state and city leaders want to know how to stop the population exodus here, I offer the opinion of someone who, like many of her young peers, has considered Illinois as a potential post-college home.

Here’s what I think: The weather here is demoralizing enough as it is. This, combined with a gridlocked government unable to provide basic funding for education and pensions, makes starting a life here — and someday, maybe even a family — seem like a road to unnecessary grief.

Illinois is the only state still without a budget this year. Money for Monetary Award Program (MAP) grants and public university professors’ salaries is starting to dry up. Compared to what I’m familiar with in Kansas City, taxes are high. So is rent.

These problems are complex, and they are beyond the limited comprehension provided to me by my political science minor. I love Chicago’s spirit, from the diversity of its neighborhoods, to the beauty of its lakefront, to the cultural heritage of its museums and architecture. But when it comes down to it, I’ve got other options that look more appealing.

The Kansas City housing market is known for its affordability. Kansas schools are among the best in the nation. In Dallas, where my mom returned after five years in Germany, it rarely snows, and sales tax is 8.25 percent (compared to Chicago’s 10.25 percent).

I haven’t made any concrete decisions about my future yet, but if things here continue as they are — with Gov. Bruce Rauner and House Speaker Michael Madigan playing the blame game while citizens suffer — I don’t think I’ll stick around long. And I know I’ll be fine. Wherever I’ve ended up, I’ve always been able to land on my feet.

As for Chicago and Illinois, I think they’ll miss me, and other young people like me, when we decide there’s more opportunity for us somewhere else.

Morgan Christian is the Opinion editor.

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