DECATUR — When it comes to a pair of government studies released Thursday, local officials said that current job numbers — not a decline in population — are a true sign of Decatur's health.
The U.S. Census Bureau’s annual population estimate and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Illinois Department of Employment Security jobless numbers were coincidentally released the same day.
The statistics paint a contrasting image, with the census numbers showing Decatur population as of July 1, 2017, was estimated at 72,174, a decline of 631 from the prior year. The labor statistics reveal the Decatur’s unemployment rate for April was 4.4 percent and that the region has added nonfarm jobs for the fourth consecutive month.
“What I think it’s important to say is (the census numbers) are almost a year old,” said Nicole Bateman, the community marketing manager for the Limitless Decatur and Macon County public relations campaign. “We’re almost to July 2018, and what I would really say takes a pulse on the local economy is the jobs numbers.”
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The Census Bureau estimates annual population changes using birth and death certificate data, as well as address changes on tax returns. The figures are based on estimates that are later adjusted as more data are analyzed.
Declines were widespread across the state. Aurora and Carbondale each saw a population drop of fewer than 300 people, while Rockford's and Springfield's head counts fell by fewer than 1,000. Peoria lost about 1,500 residents, according to census figures.
The employment data shows the number of total nonfarm jobs in the Decatur area this April was 51,200, an increase of 300 from the prior month. The largest year-to-year increase came in manufacturing, which saw a growth of 300 jobs in the industry from April 2016.
The unemployment rate for Decatur last month was 4.4 percent, a decrease of .4 percent from the previous year. Decatur has the second-highest unemployment rate in the state, ahead of only Danville’s rate of 4.8 percent.
The unemployment rate was positive news for Ryan McCrady, president of the Economic Development Corporation of Decatur and Macon County. The rate is the lowest seen in Macon County since 2006.
The data showed the Decatur area saw an increase of 640 people in the labor force and an increase of 821 of those in employment, both positive steps which McCrady said could start to be reflected in future census numbers.
“We’re hopeful that it is a sign that we will start pushing those population numbers in the right direction,” he said.
Whether Decatur is unique in these trends or is just following what is seen statewide is up for interpretation.
Thursday’s labor report showed the unemployment rate has decreased in all of Illinois’ 14 metropolitan areas. Illinois’ overall unemployment rate was 3.6 percent, a drop of .9 percent from the previous year.
“The unemployment rate has been below previous year levels in all metro areas for 10 of the last eleven months,” said IDES Director Jeff Mays. “In fact, three metro areas saw their lowest unemployment rate on record for April.”
While there was certainly optimism about the labor numbers, local officials said they realized the census numbers can be perceived that the community is going in the wrong direction.
Overall, Decatur population has decreased by 3,966 since the 2010 Census. Data released by the Census in February showed Macon County lost an estimated 850 residents from July 1, 2016 to July 1, 2017, and a total loss of 4,976 residents since 2010.
As of last July, the county's population was estimated at 105,801 people. The county's peak population was 132,399 in 1979.
The Census Bureau also tracks migration data, or how many people move into and out of an area. For Macon County, 229 more people moved into the county than moved out from 2011 to 2015, even though the county reported thousands fewer residents during that time.
When speaking about Thursday’s releases, Deputy City Manager Billy Tyus said the census numbers do not fully portray what has seen occur at the local level.
Along with businesses like Caterpillar announcing they would bring hundreds of new jobs to Decatur and expansions by Akron and both St. Mary’s Hospital and Decatur Memorial Hospital, Tyus said there are smaller changes occurring to make the community a more welcoming place to retain and bring in new residents. He mentioned the Lake Decatur lakefront amphitheater and the city’s neighborhood revitalization project as projects that should help in the effort to turn around decades of population decline.
“We’re seeing growth as it relates to jobs and the economics of the area, but also as it relates to growing our quality of life,” Tyus said.
“I think there are a number of different things that go to where we are as a community, and I do not think population (numbers) should be looked at as an indicator of that.”
The state overall lost 0.2 percent of its population from 2010 to 2017 for an estimated total population of 12,802,539 people last year.
Cities that gained population from 2016 to 2017 mostly included Chicago suburbs and downstate cities with sizable college communities, such as Champaign and Normal.
The conservative-leaning Illinois Policy Institute said the population drops are an indication that working-age people are "fleeing" the state.
The group pointed to how the census data showed both out-migration and a shrinking workforce in 10 out of 12 Illinois metro areas from 2016 to 2017 and that only 15 percent of Illinois communities saw population growth.
"People move for better opportunities, and in Illinois, income growth has been lagging the rest of the nation. If you look at every single metro area in Illinois except for Chicago, income growth lags the rest of the nation by a significant amount," said Orphe Divounguy, the Illinois Policy Institute's chief economist.
Of the five largest cities — which in order are New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Phoenix — only Chicago saw a population drop, according to census figures.
The Chicago Tribune and Belleville News-Democrat contributed to this report.