Chicago, IL

If Chicago and the suburbs split from Illinois, the rest of the state would be the poorest in the country

Jennifer Geer

A group of secessionists from Downstate Illinois hope to do just that
corn fields in Illinois(Daniel Schwen/CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons)

There is a deep divide between rural America and its larger cities. If America has red states and blue states, Illinois has red counties and blue counties.

The narrative among some in rural Illinois is that their tax dollars support the city of Chicago. But, the evidence shows otherwise.

A recent study from political scientists John Foster and John Jackson, researchers at Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIUC) examined the question, what would happen economically if Chicago and the suburbs left the rest of Illinois to became a state?

The answer they found? Economic disaster for Downstate Illinois.

“Our basic premise is that people really ought to understand where their tax money is raised and where it’s being spent,” Jackson told the Herald&Review.

Rural resentment

The resentment against large cities is not just in Illinois. Partisanship is split within states among urban and rural lines. In Illinois, Cook County holds 40% of the state's population, meaning they have the votes, and they dictate the political agenda for small towns sitting at the bottom of the state, a world away.

Chicago produces the majority of state revenue

However, with the higher population comes the money. The researchers found the Chicago metropolitan area accounts for 73% of the state's overall population and economic output. Southern Illinois gets back more in every dollar spent on state taxes than the residents of Chicago and its suburbs.

In Downstate Illinois, there is considerably more state spending than taxing

The researchers studied the years from 2013 to 2016, and they found the following.

For every dollar spent:

  • Cook County residents got back at least 88 to 98 cents.
  • Suburban Chicago got back 52 to 60 cents.
  • Downstate Illinois got back $1.65 to $1.79

When you break Downstate Illinois by region, the South received the highest return on their tax dollars, ranging from $2.73 to $3.02.

New Illinois group wants to form a new state

In 2018, a secessionist movement, called New Illinois, formed. Their goal, to lobby Congress to make Chicago the 51st state in the nation. And to let the rest of Illinois become "New Illinois." A state without the influence of a major metropolitan area.

A look at frequently asked questions on the New Illinois website does address the issue of economic disparity between northern Illinois and southern. As a result, the group would like to retain as many prosperous Chicago suburbs as possible, except Cook County.

From their website, "we have been told by financial experts that, by itself, the southern 1/3 of the counties would not be viable as a state in terms of population and economy. Including as much of the state as possible gives the state split movement the best chance of success. If all 101 counties outside of Cook join the new state, it would have a population and an economy exceeding that of Indiana."

According to their website, they would like to invite any county (except Cook) to become part of New Illinois. However, would the people of suburban Chicago counties be interested in breaking off into a new state where they must carry the financial burden of the entire state on their backs?

What happens to Illinois without Cook County and the suburbs?

The study showed if Cook County and the other five suburban counties split, they would take with them 73% of the total state GDP. The median household annual income of $61,000 would rank sixth in the nation.

The remaining 96 counties would account for 27% of GDP with a median household income of $45,752 (41st in the nation.)

It gets even worse the further south you go. The study found if you divide only the southern third of the state, it would become the poorest state in the nation, ranking only above US territories like Puerto Rico and Samoa.

The American divide

Foster said, "There’s a long-standing myth in Illinois that downstate taxes are going to Chicago and supporting Chicago and that is just not true."

Foster explained despite rural resentment, separating from the Chicago metropolitan area would be disastrous for the rest of Illinois, “it’s that resentment that feeds into the perception that we need to separate."

What would it mean for Chicago?

In an article from 2020, the Chicago Mag pondered the benefits the Chicago area would get with the extra tax dollars they would no longer need to send downstate.

"With its extra tax money, the Chicago area could try and build a world-class state university, betting on the idea that academic and athletic talent would be more attracted to Chicago than Champaign. Currently, Chicagoans are more likely to vacation in Wisconsin’s Door County or Michigan’s Harbor Country than Starved Rock or the Garden of the Gods; some may not even notice the separation from a region they rarely visit."

The authors of the study hope to contribute to the facts of how the resources in Illinois are distributed.

"We hope this paper contributes in some part to establishing what the facts are about the raising and distribution of scarce resources in Illinois, what the people’s perceptions are, and what the gaps are between those two important ingredients of mass and representative democracy in America today."

Perhaps Illinois is better off learning how to work together, rather than expending energy on trying to split.

Read the full study here.

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Jennifer covers lifestyle content and local news for the Chicago area.

Chicago, IL

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