The Incredible Shrinking Up North Population
Bad news for our economy, our housing, our schools, and our representation in Congress.
By Todd VanSickle | Oct. 26, 2019
In 2009, Jessica Estes was laid off from her job at a major automaker. She was about 21 years old, and while many of her peers were having kids, the thought of having a family during that time scared her.
The economy has rebounded, but that experience of poverty and struggle has made a substantial impact on Estes’ plans for the future.
“I was a recession layoff. That is No. 1 of my reasons for not wanting to have children,” Estes said. “I couldn’t imagine having the responsibility of having a family and going through that.”
Nevertheless, she’s frequently asked by friends and family when she’s going to have kids.
The answer for her, now a nurse at Kalkaska Memorial Hospital, is simple: “I really like my financial freedom.”
Estes isn’t alone in her beliefs.
According to the United States Census Bureau, births declined sharply in Michigan during the start of the Great Recession, while deaths rose. Both trends are projected to continue on the same path through 2045. And as young professionals migrate out of the state to other job markets, and the Baby Boomer generation continues to age, Michigan is on track to become the oldest state in the U.S. by 2025, with people 65 and over outnumbering those who are 17 and younger.
This contrast in the working population and retirees could have many effects — economically and socially — throughout the state and northern Michigan.
FERTILITY & FINANCES
On Oct. 4, at North Central Michigan’s Library Conference Room in Petoskey, about 120 people — mostly retired residents of northern Michigan — enjoyed salad, grilled chicken, egg rolls, and pumpkin pie. But it wasn’t just lunch that attracted the large group of attendees. They were there to listen to Eric Guthrie, a state demographer, who presented a variety of population trends and why they’re important to the region and the state.
Guthrie said attitudes about fertility have changed and smaller families are becoming more the norm — not only in Michigan but throughout the nation. (Utah being the exception.)
“It just becomes more difficult for families to have larger families with the necessity of two people in the workforce and the cost of childcare. The most expensive time in a family’s life is when they have children, and that is when people are younger and have less resources to devote to it as well,” Guthrie said. “So, we have multiple factors pushing people towards having fewer children.”
Additionally, women are having children later in the life, he said.
Guthrie’s lecture was well received by the attentive and inquisitive audience, but he notes that most were in their Golden Years and not in their reproductive prime.
“I am under no illusion that me speaking to a group is going to make them go out and increase fertility,” Guthrie said, who gives multiple lectures each year to a variety of people of all ages. “Because what we are talking about are long-term lifestyles that have occurred and how it has affected how many children people want to have.”
The demographer’s recent lecture focused on the state as a whole and three counties: Emmet, Charlevoix and Cheboygan.
FOCUS ON MIGRANTS FIRST, THEN BABIES
He said Michigan’s population had been increasing steadily over the years — until 2004, when it topped out at its peak: 10,055,315. Around 2010, when the Great Recession was in full swing, Michigan’s population dipped to 9,877,535. It has been making modest gains during the past few years.
“We expect to see the state regain its peak population that it reached in 2004 early in the next decade,” Guthrie said. “That is the good news. The bad news is the population increases we are witnessing are below the national average. We are not increasing as fast as some other states. This has some implications as far as representation.”
The demographer said population figures affect everything from state and federal funding for schools to representation in government. He estimates about $1,400 to $1,800 are lost to the state for each person missed in the census. Note: That’s only the federal dollars allocated with census statistics. They don’t include the state and private funds that also use population statistics to make distribution decisions.
Prior to the congressional reapportionment during the last decade, North Carolina had a smaller population than Michigan and one fewer representative. Currently, North Carolina has a greater population than Michigan.
“I don’t like to make predictions, because that is more political than I like to get, but we can all do the math and see there might be some changes in congressional representation,” Guthrie said.
Current population figures will be available after the 2020 census, and while trends point to a rising population, it can’t depend on births alone.
“Whenever I give presentations, and I say birth rates are declining and we need to concentrate on migration, literally the next person that gets up and talks asks, ‘How do we increase birth rates?’ That is not where the focus needs to be. It needs to be on those migration patterns, because they can be changed with policy and local action,” Guthrie said.
Trends in population are calculated by births, deaths, and migration.
Births and deaths effect a slow natural change to the population, but migration can have a more drastic effect in the numbers and is often linked to economic events and policy.
“We need to understand that birth rates are declining,” Guthrie said. “We need to re-focus our attention on attracting migrants to the state if population increase is what local areas desire.”
According to U.S. census population projections an increase migration is expected, but by 2035 it begins to take a downturn. Michigan isn’t attracting migrants like other areas in the U.S., like the South, and while many come from places where having more children is the norm, by the third generation, migrants adapt to fertility beliefs of a region.
IMPACT UP NORTH
Northern Michigan is unique, said Guthrie, because when it comes to population, the region has a higher median age than the rest of the state. This means there are big gaps in the labor force, and immigration needs to be embraced.
“We need to make sure folks up here are capitalizing on that opportunity and are not letting jobs leave the area,” Guthrie said.
The North Central Michigan College Luncheon Lecture Series Coordinator Charlie MacInnis has organized the event for the past 16 years. He wasn’t surprised with the large turnout or the population trends that were being presented.
He said that in Emmet County 20 years ago, there used to be two babies for every death. Today it’s flipped; there are more deaths than births.
“This has implications for the county in all sorts of ways,” MacInnis said.
Some of the areas he highlighted were services for senior citizens and housing,
“It has an impact on the economy in general,” MacInnis said. “If I want to build a house. We are running out of workers.”
Several other people expressed concerns about the lack of employees in the area during the lecture, especially during the winter months when businesses close for the season.
Jean and Chip Frentz attended the lecture. The retired educators moved to Petoskey nine years ago from downstate. Mr. Frentz is 78; his wife didn’t want to disclose her age.
“Unless we get migrants from other countries and other states, then we are going to continue to have a problem with a lack of workforce and losing good services,” Mrs. Frentz said. “We go to establishments, and they’re closing certain days because they don’t have enough workers. We see that.”
HOUSING IS A HINDRANCE
Attracting more workers means more housing. However, the region also suffers from a lack of housing.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau 2017 American Community Survey five-year Estimates, the majority of housing in Charlevoix, Cheboygan, and Emmet counties are dedicated to seasonal, recreational, or occasional use. The available housing for rent is less than five percent in each county. And housing for migrant workers is even lower or non-existent.
“There is certainly a lack of adequate housing at an income level that workers can afford,” Mr. Frentz said.
MacInnis, also sits on the planning commission for Emmet County. Housing, land use, and the economy are all issues that the board are dealing with.
“First you want housing, but you want to keep it affordable,” MacInnis said.
The board has found that younger homeowners are looking for smaller homes, but if it is put in a nicer neighborhood on a smaller lot, it then becomes very desirable for retirees who will pay more money. And with an influx of retirees, housing gets snatched up quickly.
“We have heard of people who were hired here for middle-class jobs, and they ended up not moving here because they couldn’t find a place to live,” Mrs. Frentz said.
FEWER KIDS, SHRINKING SCHOOLS
Schools are also suffering when it comes to a dwindling younger population. Michigan schools have seen a decline in enrollment for more than a decade. In 2002, the number of students attending K–12 was 1,690,383. Since then, it has been in decline. During the 2018–19 school year, the number of students was at 1,453,135, according to MI School Data.
This is troubling because Proposal A allocates funding to schools by the state on a per-student basis. If there are shortfalls in the budget, a school district is allowed to levy property taxes on communities to help fund schools, but this might not be enough to keep the lights on. Charter schools are the most vulnerable, which depend entirely on state funds. In 2018–19, there were 297 operating charter schools, with more than 147,000 students, or 10 percent of the total students enrolled in Michigan schools, on a full-time basis.
Again, Guthrie looks to migrants as an answer to diversify and boost numbers in classrooms.
Mrs. Frentz concurs.
“We have grandchildren in school and see the lack of diversity,” she said, noting that she always votes in favor of school initiatives. “And, we are seeing the schools lose money. …The quality of our workforce depends on whether or not they get a good education. Most of us care about the quality of living and the workforce, so we have to educate the children to get that.”
MacInnis said population statistics provide “essential” information to the planning commission and is optimistic that the board is making strides in bringing affordable housing to the area, which could be the first step in addressing the concerning trends.
“The more people understand the reasons for population changes in their area, the more informed they are in their decisions that can be made,” Guthrie said.