On the I-57 highway through Illinois, time seems to go backward with each southbound mile.
The houses and cars in the yards get older. As years pass, town populations shrink. Eventually, homes turn back into piles of disconnected wood and glass, then empty lots. At the end of the highway, the town of Cairo slowly sinks back into the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.
A town of 15,000 people in the 1920s, Cairo now houses fewer than 2,000 residents. Today, the town is so silent that the few voices heard while walking the streets underscore its emptiness.
Cairo’s citizens live between abandoned buildings and walk sidewalks covered in burrs. Many work in Missouri or Kentucky.
Glenn Collier is one of the few Cairo residents with a job in the city. He’s a general contractor. Although he has lived in Cairo for most of his life, he said he only stays because he has family in the area.
“The closest place that you’ll find a job around here is probably 30 miles away,” Collier told The Epoch Times.
Even Cairo’s gas stations have gone out of business, and residents buy their food from the local Dollar Store, Collier said. The nearest grocery store selling unprocessed meat is miles away.
Over the past 30 years, Alexander County, where Cairo is located, has lost nearly a third of its population. Although not all southern Illinois counties have experienced such a drastic loss, all are shrinking.
It’s tempting to blame this population loss on the “rural decay” trends that afflict many other places in the United States. But according to the people who live there, what’s happening in southern Illinois, locally known as “Little Egypt,” is the result of decades of destructive government policies.
Just across the Mississippi River, some Missouri counties are growing. And none of Missouri’s counties have lost population at the same rate as the fastest-shrinking southern Illinois counties.
Big Trouble in Little Egypt
Cairo is the way it is because of decades of political corruption, rejected business opportunities, and high taxes, Collier said.
“There were lots of businesses at one time,” Collier said. “Cairo was a very popular destination. People from the tri-state area would come here to do the grocery shopping and clothes and all that type of stuff.”
The local government in Cairo has often been corrupt, Collier noted. Public utilities were charged at different prices in different locations. A pair of volunteer firefighters burned down houses in 2012 because they only got paid when fighting a fire.
Despite Cairo’s excellent location on two rivers, corruption and poor policy turned it into a ruin. But less than an hour away, the river town of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, is prospering. In the past decade, its county population grew by 4 percent.
Dozens of shops line Cape Girardeau’s streets. A few storefronts are for lease, but the town’s streets bustle with life. Unlike in Illinois towns, people stroll the streets on a weekday. Nothing’s overgrown, and the people look happier.
Mayberry in the Midwest
Although most Americans know little about rural Illinois, it matters when America’s small towns rot. Rural Illinois towns may not be places people visit, but they’re often the places where impactful people come from.
The list of famous rural Illinois people is surprisingly long. It includes actor Dick van Dyke, Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmum, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick, actor John Malkovich, and Abraham Lincoln. Memorial Day was created by Murphysboro, Illinois, resident Gen. John Logan.
Murphysboro local Jane Cottonaro calls Gen. Logan “Johnny.”
“Murphysboro used to be real friendly,” Cottonaro said. “Everybody knew everybody.”
But the town has become less close as people have left and gotten fewer economic opportunities, she admitted.
Cottonaro said that the close community ties in Murphysboro still make the town special. Residents of other southern Illinois towns say similar things about their own communities.
“This is where I was born,” Cairo resident Tony Baker said. “If I go somewhere else, it’s probably going to be a city. This is country. It would be like Andy Griffith moving out of Mayberry.”
Holly Harrell, another Cairo resident, shared Baker’s sense of community.
“There’s some of us that stick together,” Harrell said. “Hopefully, we’ll get our town going back again.”
Chicago Taxes, Murphysboro Money
Most people don’t want to leave southern Illinois, local residents say. But year after year of high taxes, poor economic growth, and bad government put a strain on hometown loyalties.
The policies that changed Murphysboro and Cairo emanated from Chicago and its surrounding counties, local residents say. Chicago is the center of political power in Illinois.
More than 9 million people live in the Chicago metropolitan area, according to World Population Review. The rest of Illinois is home to about 3 million people. This population concentration means that although Chicago and its nearby counties make up only a small percentage of Illinois land, they often decide policy for the rest of the state.
Chicago and its surrounding counties all vote Democrat. But the rest of Illinois is solidly Republican.
Chicago’s population has consistently voted for high taxes and more government regulation. Today, Illinois has one of the United States’ highest average local and state tax burdens at 10 percent of income. In contrast, Missouri has an average tax burden of 7.8 percent of income.
Chicago is wealthy: The average citizen there earns $72,000 per year.
“In this area, it’s a lot different from the larger cities,” Murphysboro resident and worship pastor Jermaine Bollinger said. “The representation of the necessities of the people around here aren’t really felt in Cook County [where Chicago is located].”
Illinois politicians don’t notice the problems of southern communities, Bollinger said. The southern part of the state doesn’t offer the same jobs or need the same politics.
Many southern Illinois residents say that most of their taxes go into Chicago without benefitting them. But they lack the political power to change the way Illinois laws impact their communities, Cottonaro said. The problem is bad enough that some residents wish for secession from the state.
“It’s the Democrats up in Chicago that run the whole state. Whatever they say goes,” Cottonaro said. “So we have nothing to say down here. Does it truly matter when how you vote is not going to make any difference?”
Illinois’s government also has a reputation for corruption. From 1970 to 2010, about 1,500 people have been convicted for political corruption in the state.
“We’re no longer shocked or surprised whenever bad government happens,” Murphysboro Mayor Will Stephens said. “People treat Illinois politics like a game instead of a true public service.”
Americans Against Prosperity
Despite the concerns of many southern Illinois residents over Chicago’s fiscal and cultural politics, some of the economic problems are homegrown.
Illinois local and state government has a habit of destroying its own best economic resources, many southern Illinois citizens say. Although some businesses have left rural Illinois because of global manufacturing trends, many left because local leaders made decisions that drove them away.
Bollinger said that the college town of Carbondale, Illinois, once had a thriving music scene with at least a dozen music venues. But after the city passed a restrictive noise ordinance in 2015, the music died. Today, only three active music venues remain in Carbondale.
“The nail in the coffin was the noise ordinance issues,” said Bollinger.
Cal-Crest Jacket Factory made clothes in Murphysboro, former supervisor Vicky Penrod said. Nearly 30 years ago, the factory asked the town for tax breaks so it could stay in Illinois, but the town refused, she said.
In 1985, the factory left for Mississippi, Jackson County Historical Society photo collector Nick Quigley said. Publicly, its owners cited competition from China as the driving reason.
Stephens said he didn’t think Cal-Crest left because the town failed to provide incentives for it to stay.
In the 1990s, McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Walmart, and a mall attempted to open businesses in Cairo, Collier said. But local leaders rejected the investment because they feared it would disrupt local business.
“The business owners inside of Cairo thought these places would disrupt their business,” he said. “So, of course, they did whatever they could to make it not be. Actually, it had just the opposite effect.”
The mall went to Cape Girardeau in Missouri and people didn’t visit Cairo, Collier said.
Bridges to Opportunity
Today, many people who live within Illinois’ borders work in Missouri. On weekday mornings, droves of cars with Illinois license plates cross the bridge into Cape Girardeau. Some come from as far as an hour away.
The jobs are in Cape Girardeau, along with cheaper food, gas, and clothes. In the evening, the Illinois cars trace the same route home.
But there’s no corresponding traffic from Missouri to Illinois. One side of the Mississippi has jobs and the other doesn’t.
Jamie Davis, the owner of Cape Girardeau’s Aesthete clothing store, said it never occurred to her to open her shop in Illinois.
“There’s nothing that I would know to cross into Illinois for,” said Davis. “Cairo was a big place but now there’s nothing there.”
If Missourians visit southern Illinois, they go to strip clubs, bars, and wineries, Davis said. There’s not much else.
But lifelong Illinois resident Lisa Lesch visits Missouri for work every weekday. Lesch’s husband, her sister, her sister’s husband, her aunts, her uncles, and her granddaughter also all work in Missouri.
“Down here on this southern end, there’s nothing,” Lesch said. “There’s poverty.”
Lesch said she won’t leave Illinois because she has family roots in the state and because it’s hard to sell her house. But Illinois keeps getting worse.
“I don’t think there’ll be many people left unless something changes, and we get some righteous leaders in there who can lead the state in justice and righteousness,” she said.
Happy Missouri, Illinois Misery
Murphysboro Mayor Stephens said he has worked to attract businesses to his town. Unlike some southern Illinois towns, Murphysboro is still charming. Volunteers work to beautify the streets and businesses are open. But people still leave, and 73 homes have been torn down in the eight years since Stevens took office.
Stevens said his efforts to revitalize the town have been hampered by Illinois tax policy. Both businesses and people prefer adjacent states with lower taxes.
Although people love their local communities, they don’t love Illinois, he said. A few years ago, some Illinois citizens started flying Missouri flags because they wished they were part of Missouri.
“You have to work twice as long and twice as hard to get half as much when it comes to economic development in this region,” Stevens said.
Many southern Illinois residents say that the population loss from their side of the state won’t stop until political leaders from the more populous northern areas of the state take notice. Although they fight to maintain their communities, it’s just a last stand unless “something changes.”
Several southern Illinoisans interviewed by The Epoch Times said they wanted political change, but were more concerned about incompetence and corruption than party lines.
“There’s been millions squandered on crazy things,” Collier said.
He didn’t mention which political party controls Cairo’s government.
Attempts to fix Cairo’s historic downtown made Collier laugh. The city government paved a street with bricks and repainted a locked movie theater. If someone was living in the collapsing, ivy-cluttered building across the street, they would have a charming view.