Rockford fastest shrinking city in Ill., one of fastest in US

Source: Henryk Sadura
Source: Henryk Sadura(WIFR)
Published: Jun. 8, 2020 at 11:08 AM CDT
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Rockford is among two Illinois cities with the fastest-shrinking populations in the country.

This is part of an ongoing trend of Midwestern cities losing residents while cities across the Southwest and West continue to grow, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Rockford comes in at No. 15 on that list in declining population since the 2010 census, according to the recently released 2019 population estimates. The northern Illinois city, the fifth-largest in the state with an estimated 145,609 residents, has lost 5 percent of its population during that nine-year period, according to the

Rockford’s total population loss of 7,676 people over the last decade places it ninth nationwide among large cities, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

David Wilson, professor of geography and urban planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign says cities like Rockford are suffering from structural, systematic forces in the new postindustrial economy, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Midsize Midwestern cities in particular, especially those in the so-called Rust Belt that relied on manufacturing, have been hurt in recent years by a lack of federal aid for municipalities and a closure or movement of industrial companies, which leads to higher local taxes and a lack of jobs that can provide for a middle class life, according to the Chicago Tribune.

This phenomenon, Wilson said, disproportionately hurts the black middle class and is unequally distributed among socioeconomic classes, affecting those who earn less money or who relied on the manufacturing jobs that no longer exist.

The coronavirus will exacerbate all of these factors, especially when it comes to curtailing of public services, but also the perception that cities like Rockford and Decatur are unsafe, Wilson said.

“It’s going to create a further divide between the haves and the have-nots in places like Joliet, Aurora, Rockford,” Wilson said. “And people are going to want to leave.”

In Rockford, the area north of downtown was once humming with industrial manufacturing facilities that attracted thousands of workers.

Now the facilities are mostly abandoned. Front entrances that once welcomed employees are shuttered, blocked by weeds and unruly bushes. Huge parking lots are silent and empty. Gates are padlocked, according to the Chicago Tribune.

“More and more middle-class families have a difficult time finding their economic footing in places like Aurora and Joliet and Rockford,” Wilson said. “If you look at where job growth is, either you try to find a way into the new high-tech economy or you find yourself essentially bailing out into the dead-end, low-wage economy. People say, well, maybe that’s not suitable, maybe there’s something better down the road and we should move to the Sun Belt, maybe we should move to the East Coast, and try our hand there.”

It is a myth, Wilson said, that high earners, even in places like Rockford and Decatur, are fleeing the state. In fact, he said, the biggest population losses appear to be coming from those who earn less. And when they decide to leave, they turn to places with better job prospects, lower taxes and, secondarily, better weather, Wilson said.

The Census Bureau releases population estimates each year between censuses. The 2020 census is continuing, with deadlines extended because of the coronavirus pandemic.

More precise population information from the census, including state population totals that will determine apportionment of seats in the U.S. House, will begin to be released in spring 2021.