County leaders take on population loss fight
STERLING – Rural population loss isn’t a new problem, but there is a growing sense of urgency in Whiteside County to fight the trend.
Members John Gvozdjak and Dave Murray opened up their Rotary meeting Tuesday to political, business and local government leaders to put rural challenges under a microscope.
Brian Harger, a research associate in the Northern Illinois University Center for Governmental Studies, led the discussion based on data from “The Future of Rural Illinois: Predicaments and Possible Solutions,” a study he recently worked on with NIU colleague Norman Walzer.
It is part of a series Harger and Walzer have published on the long-term outlook for the future of rural Illinois. Harger presented numbers and trends specific to Whiteside County, and most of the emphasis was on the loss of residents.
The county’s population fell from about 65,000 to 58,000 in the last census, and a drop to 54,000 is projected by 2025.
“A declining population affects everyone – business, schools, hospitals – but if we think we can do something about it, we can,” Gvozdjak said, paraphrasing a quote from Henry Ford.
When the county’s population loss is broken down by age groups, the cause for concern heightens. The working age group, ages 20 to 64, has dropped to 57 percent of the population, and it is projected to drop to 52 percent by 2025.
When the working group leaves, they also take their children, further depleting the future worker pool. The younger-than-20 group is expected to drop 18 percent by 2025.
Meanwhile, the 65-and-older category continues to grow. Projections for the senior group show a 31 percent increase, compounding the overall population loss problem.
“You have a decline in the number of young people, a growing dependent group with an increasing need for services, and reduced tax revenues to pay for services,” Harger said.
A smaller workforce will hinder economic development efforts and the growth of businesses already here.
The civilian labor force – people employed or looking for work – in Whiteside County dropped from 29,909 to 28,039 from 2010 to 2017. While the unemployment rate during that time has dipped from 10.3 percent to 4.7 percent, a big part of the story is that more people have left the workforce.
“Many young people dropped out of the labor force during the recession and middle-aged workers have also become displaced and need to be retrained,” Harger said.
There is some good news that the county can build on to meet its demographic challenges.
“The GDP and median household income are both increasing, and the poverty rate has remained stable,” Harger said.
The county has several regional assets to lean on. A strong manufacturing base employs 13.7 percent of the area and is responsible for 26 percent of good and services produced.
Agriculture is another strength, with production at 2.5 times the national average. Warehousing and transportation activity continues to grow, bringing 1,100 new jobs since 2010.
Harger also cited the area’s strong workforce development resources centered around Sauk Valley Community College, Whiteside Area Career Center and Morrison Institute of Technology.
“The best way for Whiteside County to address population loss is to develop the human resources you already have. You have to retain your youth and retrain displaced adults,” Harger said.
In concert with that emphasis, the renewed partnerships between manufacturers and educators have put workforce development at the top of local leaders’ priority list. They are trying to change perceptions of manufacturing and working to stamp out the myth that all students must be armed with a 4-year degree to succeed in the workplace.
“Sauk and the vocational center are tremendous resources for us,” said Bob Sondgeroth, regional schools superintendent. “Kids don’t have to graduate from college, but we have to get them in the right programs.”
The group also discussed the trickle-down effect of the state’s financial problems. The flight of residents to urban areas has given rural residents less clout in state and national government.
Statewide, population projections show, that by 2025, about half of Illinois’ residents will be younger than 20 or older than 65.