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Decatur's population is declining. Will traditional economic growth reverse the trend?

Multiple Decatur city executives have recently claimed that Decatur’s population is growing.  This claim contradicts the U.S. Census Bureau data which recorded the city’s population at 76,122 in 2010 and 70,522 in 2020 (a decrease of 7.4%).  Yearly estimates of Decatur’s population since the 2020 census have shown further population decline with a July 2021 population estimate of 69,646 and a July 2022 estimate of 69,097 individuals.  Decatur’s labor force is declining at a faster rate than its population.  According to Illinois Department of Employment Security data, the monthly labor force in Decatur averaged 36,679 in 2010, 30,937 in 2020, and 30,457 in 2022.  Finally, Decatur Public Schools reported fewer students enrolled this year compared to last. 

Rather than city executives making false claims regarding population trends, Decatur’s leaders should be focused on how to reverse population declines and whether traditional models of economic growth will increase the number of residents living in our city.  In recent months, Decatur has seen significant announcements of future economic development, particularly expansion of industry in the city’s northeast quadrant.  However, it is unclear whether this growth will increase the city’s population or labor force. 

Despite neighborhood revitalization being the number one priority of the Decatur City Council for years, the city continues to lack a strategic plan and budget for the fundamental improvements needed in our city’s neighborhoods to increase the number of residents.  Thus, the city is likely to produce hundreds of new jobs, but without improving the neighborhoods in which we live, it is unclear if new individuals will move to Decatur and current residents will remain.  Instead, job seekers may take advantage of the major roads and nearby cities and commute to our city and live somewhere else. 

One of Decatur’s strengths is its extremely affordable housing when compared to the U.S. housing market.  However, the reason housing may be so affordable could be due to the deterioration of many neighborhoods, combined with significant loss of population and labor force.  Using data from Zillow, the average home price in the United States in April 2000 was $115,982 and was $46,770 in Decatur.  In April 2023, the average home price in the United States was $339,459 (193% increase) and was $77,753 in Decatur (66% increase).  During the same 22-year period, Decatur’s population has decreased 16% and the number of people employed has decreased 22%.

Not every city can celebrate hundreds of millions of dollars in new investments entering its city and there is little doubt that Decatur’s northeast quadrant has and will continue to be transformed.  Whether this traditional model of economic growth translates into additional residents and improvements to our currently distressed neighborhoods remains to be seen.

Horn for Decatur
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