This story is part of the Institute for Nonprofit News’ Rural Collaboration project. For more information on the project, go here

Scott Schwerer wonders about the funding.

Over the past decade, McDonough County, where Schwerer serves as county board chair, has lost about 5,000 people, dropping its population below 30,000. At a 16% reduction, it’s the greatest decline among rural counties in the state, and it’s going to hit the area, particularly its largest city, Macomb, in the pocketbook.

“They will lose a lot of funding because of the census being lower,” he said.

McDonough County isn’t alone. All but three rural counties in Illinois have lost population since 2010, reflecting a nationwide trend. The exodus is likely caused by, among other things, losing young people to big cities and the loss of agricultural jobs to technology, experts said.

“One of the issues that really sort of restructured the entire rural landscape over the past century has been this mechanization of agriculture,” said Christopher Merrett, professor and director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University, which happens to be in Macomb. 

However, at the same time, all but two rural counties in Illinois are now more diverse, according to an analysis by Investigate Midwest of 2020 Census data provided by the Census Co-Op through a collaboration with the Institute for Nonprofit News.

The increased diversity in some rural areas — such as Cass County, home of the JBS Beardstown plant — could be attributed to jobs in the meatpacking industry, which depends heavily on immigrant labor, Merrett said. 

Cass County lost 4% of its population, equaling several hundred people in the county of about 13,000. Since 2010, its Hispanic population increased by about 20%, now accounting for about 3,000 residents.

Urban areas have experienced the greatest growth over the past decade. Urban population grew 9%, while rural population continued to decline. As of 2020, nationwide, 46 million people lived in rural areas, making up 14% of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

In Illinois, the state’s entire population only dropped 0.1% between 2010 and 2020, but the rural counties are a different story. The population in all rural counties — counties that have less than 50,000 people — fell by 5.8%, according to the USDA.

Schwerer attributed McDonough County’s dwindling population to lower enrollment numbers at Western Illinois University. School data shows fall enrollment has declined for at least the past seven years. 

“That has seemed to me to be the biggest exodus of our population,” he said.

Low birth rates, outsourced jobs, no ‘anchor’ institutions

States with the highest rates of rural population loss depended more on manufacturing, natural resource extraction and, in Illinois’ case, farming, USDA researchers found.

Farming came to rely more on technology around the 1930s, and the need for workers decreased, Merrett said.

With fewer jobs available, young people left en masse. An Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs paper found that the odds of a person between 18 and 24 years of age moving to a city is 70,000 times higher than someone who’s 50 years old. 

Declining birth rates, outsourcing of manufacturing jobs and losing anchor institutions — such as grocery stores, schools and health clinics — have also contributed to population loss, Merrett said.

“The loss of local amenities probably makes some rural areas less attractive for young people to stay,” he said. “For many people, they’re encouraged to go away to community college or university, and then they just never come back.”

Jump in diversity

Since 2010, only two rural counties in Illinois have not grown more diverse. This is based on the census’s diversity index, which “shows the probability that two people chosen at random will be from different race and ethnic groups.”

(The methodology of the 2020 Census data collection of race and ethnicity categories differs from the 2010 Census data collection. Therefore, while Investigate Midwest’s analysis gives a trend of changes in race demographics, it may not reflect the actual numbers in the change from 2010.)

For some counties, this means hundreds of diverse residents, primarily people who reported being Hispanic, have moved to the area. But, in some cases, the diversity figures are fueled by small increases in the number of residents. 

For instance, Hardin County, which only has a few thousand people, lost 15% of its population. But its diversity index increased 100% — nine more Hispanic residents moved there, and more people reported to be mixed race, according to the census figures.

This is reflected on the ground. Jennifer Lane, owner and publisher of the weekly newspaper Hardin County Independent, said she has noticed some uptick in diversity in the area, but not much.

“Most of the people in Hardin County are white,” Lane said. “I do see a little bit more of a diversity. I wouldn’t say it’s dramatic or anything, at least from my eyes.”

Whether just a handful or hundreds of diverse residents have relocated to a rural area, USDA researchers found a persistent pattern when they studied rural counties’ diversity: “persistently poor counties” tend to be more racially and ethnically diverse than counties that aren’t persistently poor.

Dealing with population decline

Merrett, the Western Illinois researcher, said the solution to rural population decline depends on a “constellation of ideas” at the local, state and federal level. 

Local governments could support entrepreneurship and start community-supported food co-ops, he said. State strategies could range from investing in higher education to broadband development. The federal government could open up immigration policies, he said.

Rural areas benefit from international migration. Without the influx of immigrants, rural economies would suffer because they would have fewer local customers and fewer local workers, according to the Daily Yonder.

Although Merrett expects some rural areas in Illinois will continue to lose people, he anticipates many of them will persist.

“I would say that rural communities matter because we should have a choice about where we live,” Merrett said. “I think that small towns matter because people have made a living here attached to the rural community, their communities. There are emotional, philosophical reasons why rural communities matter.”

For Lane, the publisher, she’s attached to Hardin County. In Rosiclare, where she lives, there’s a hospital, a medical clinic, a dentist, a grocery store, a dollar store and a few restaurants, though people may need to drive out of the area for work, she said.

Nestled in the Shawnee Hills of southeast Illinois, Hardin County, she said, is “a quiet place where you can come and relax and enjoy a calmer life.” 

Amanda Perez Pintado is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Top photo: The sun sets on a rural central Illinois road on Sept. 24, 2015.

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