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Michigan’s population challenges buck national trends

For years, news agencies report that Michigan has lost population. As evidence, they point to the decennial realignment of the House of Representatives as proof that Michigan is shrinking. Except that the numbers clearly indicate that Michigan’s population is on the rise. So, what gives?

Michigan’s population isn’t shrinking as much as it is not growing as fast as other states’ populations do. That lack of growth translates into a host of problems for Michigan, only one of which is the shrinking political clout in Washington, D.C.

Other – maybe more pressing – problems include greater demand among employers for trained workers. Some of this stems from early-career workers and recent college graduates moving out of Michigan. This reduces Michigan’s ability to attract and retain employers here. It also sets the state up for longer term population loss. When young workers leave for other states, it means that if they’re going to have children, they’ll have those children elsewhere. In the absence of other population growth strategies, that almost guarantees that Michigan’s population will actually decline.

A report commissioned by the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Business Leaders for Michigan finds that about 25% of Michigan’s young adults plan to leave the state. That contrasts with earlier research on population mobility published in the New York Times, which found that most young American adults live within 20 miles of their parents’ home. That report, which breaks down by region where young workers live, found that in the Great Lakes region – which included Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan – young people tended to remain even closer – less than 15 miles away from Mom and Dad.

Addressing Michigan’s population concerns

While the national trend indicates that young Americans are becoming less mobile, these same young adults in Michigan are packing their bags for elsewhere. Since 2020, Michigan has lost more than 40,000 workers under the age of 30. Unfortunately, those same workers are most likely to be educated – exactly the people Michigan doesn’t want to lose.

Relative wealth has something to do with that. The presence of children in a home is one of the best predictors of poverty in the United States. Young people with children but without a substantial household income typically source at least some of their childcare from nearby relatives. Wealth means that those young adults can hire childcare services from unrelated third parties. It frees them to move farther away from their families.

Employment opportunities also play into the decision to stay or go. Michigan doesn’t have highly attractive employment opportunities. In 2022, Michigan ranked 22nd among all states in terms of average annual wage and 23rd in terms of average hourly wage.

Wages play a big role in the decision of younger workers to leave. So, community colleges don’t do Michigan any favors when they specialize in training people for low-wage jobs.

This is a public policy issue; the consequences of pushing education programs that don not put people into the middle class are both severe and long-lasting. We need to demand better of our community colleges, by insisting that they focus on delivering high-wage, high-growth degree programs. We should also not reward community colleges whose transfer programs ship our young adults out-of-state to complete their education and potentially never return.

Community colleges play a role in maintaining and growing Michigan’s populations. It’s time for us to demand that kind of performance.

Photo Credit: Rebecca Siegel , via Flickr