Why are so many people leaving Illinois?

As of the last U.S. Census count, more people are moving out of Illinois than are coming in. The Chicago Sun-Times spoke with residents and demographers to find out why.

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In this June 14, 2006 file photo are U-Haul trucks sit on a dealer lot in Des Moines, Iowa.

More residents are moving out of Illinois than in neighboring states.

AP file

Kyra Jones misses the food in Uptown.

“There’s lots of great Ethiopian food, Nigerian food, Chinese food, Vietnamese food,” said Jones, 30. “I think Chicago has the best food in the United States. And not only that, but you can find good food at all price ranges.”

Jones, who lived in Chicago for eight years, moved to Los Angeles last March after switching careers to pursue screenwriting.

“I was, like, ‘If I get hired for another show, I don’t want to have to move to Los Angeles with three days’ notice,’ ” Jones said.

When she left Chicago, Jones joined thousands who leave the state each year. United Van Lines and U-Haul, two major moving companies, named Illinois as the second-most popular state to move away from last year. The same was true in 2021.

Of the Illinoisans who hired United Van Lines, 64% were leaving the state. About 30% cited a job change as the reason, another 30% citing general lifestyle change and 25% for retirement.

Nearly 141,500 people left Illinois for other states between the last two censuses.

While the state’s population increased between 2010 and 2020 by about 250,000 people through births and immigration, the growth would have been stronger if so many hadn’t moved, according to Northwestern University sociology professor Lincoln Quillian.

People usually move within the United States for financial reasons, Quillian said. Besides job changes, larger groups of people might flock to an area where there’s more of a certain type of job.

That was true for Jones, who was happily involved in Chicago’s indie film scene before making the switch to a writing career. Though a lot of television shows and web series film in Chicago, Jones said the majority of writers rooms in the industry are based in Los Angeles.

“People have to balance the need to be close to work with, at the same time, finding a place that they can afford, and hopefully it’s close to the amenities that they want,” Quillian said. “It’s a balancing act between those different things.”

Preferences about what else is around an area, like nice weather, living close to water or family networks, are considered secondary, Quillian said. But they’re still important to many.

Leaving a city can be more of a lifestyle change than leaving a state, Quillian said. Cities tend to be more expensive, while rural or suburban living often requires a car.

Jones, the L.A. transplant, invested in a car a month after moving, in the face of more frequent high Uber and Lyft bills.

Those who leave Chicago for a nearby suburb or a new state face similar experiences.

From 2020 to 2022, Illinois lost residents about 3.5 times faster than Michigan and Missouri and 1.5 times faster than Indiana, according to Census data.

Kenneth Johnson, a demographer and professor at the University of New Hampshire, said the Chicago area attracts many people in their 20s and loses those in their early 30s.

Population change in a city or state comes in three forms, Johnson said. People are born or die, they move within a country, or they move between countries.

The Chicago metropolitan area is growing through birth and immigration but not enough to account for those leaving, Johnson said.

According to Census Bureau data, about 31,500 people moved to Illinois from abroad since the last census.

Older adults tend to leave Chicago for warmer places like Florida and Arizona, while Texas, North Carolina and Georgia have been popular destinations for younger adults, Johnson said.

Demographers also expect trends in remote work to continue having a strong impact on population patterns across the country, Johnson said.

“People have to return to the office,” Johnson said. “They may have less flexibility in where they live than they would if they can continue to work from home.”

In Jones’ post-Chicago era, she said California has treated her well. She found it easy to make friends in her industry and survived “a red wedding of show cancellations” before selling several TV show pitches.

But Jones said she still feels Chicago is home. She misses the CTA, experimental theater and the change of seasons.

“I almost feel like I can’t track the passage of time here in L.A. because the weather’s almost always the same,” she said.

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