by Rick Haglund, Michigan Advance
“If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you,” is Michigan’s long-held motto. But not enough people are seeking it.
Michigan’s population has been stalled at around 10 million people for decades. What’s worse, people are aging out of the workforce in droves and the state isn’t attracting enough people, especially young college graduates, to replace them.
Former Republican state lawmaker Ken Horn of Frankenmuth says Michigan needs 1 million new residents by 2050 to ensure a vibrant economy and boost the tax base to adequately fund state and local government services.
Horn, now the executive vice president of strategic development at the Great Lakes Bay Regional Alliance, is one of 64 workgroup members of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Growing Michigan Together Council that is developing a population growth agenda.
Those workgroups recently released some ideas dealing with infrastructure, talent, economic growth and education. A final report is due on the governor’s desk by the end of the year.
In addition, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. has launched a $20 million marketing campaign, dubbed “You Can in Michigan,” to lure new residents.
The state’s population woes go deeper than just the stagnant top-line number. We’re falling behind the rest of the county in population growth and prosperity.
Michigan’s population as a percentage of the nation’s is at its lowest point since at least 1970. That’s resulted in Michigan losing six congressional seats since 1980, diminishing the state’s clout in Washington.
Meanwhile, Michigan is getting poorer compared to the rest of the country. Census data compiled by University of Michigan economist Don Grimes for Michigan Future found that Michigan’s per capita income is the lowest it’s ever beencompared to the rest of the country. Michigan’s per capita income last year was 13% below the national average.
Michigan Future attributes the decline to the state being overconcentrated in manufacturing, where jobs and wages are declining, and under concentrated in knowledge jobs where employment and incomes are rising.
Growing Michigan’s population is going to be nearly as difficult as swimming across Lake Michigan.
That’s, in part, because people generally are staying put. Americans are far less mobile than they were 60 years ago, driving migration rates to historic lows. And recent economic trends are preventing many people from relocating for better job opportunities.
Higher mortgage interest rates, fewer job openings and slowing wage increases are leaving many homeowners feeling stuck, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Some groups hoping to influence the Growth Michigan Together Council on population growth note that the states such as Texas and Florida with higher population and job growth rates have low tax rates and Right to Work laws, and Michigan should follow suit.
The West Michigan Policy Forum, a group of Grand Rapids area business and community leaders, said Michigan should eliminate the state income tax, improve the business climate and reinstate its Right to Work law to promote population growth.
Michigan adopted RTW in 2012 during the early days of then-Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration. Snyder and the GOP-led Legislature slashed business taxes by $1.8 billion. And of the 41 states that levy a general personal income tax, Michigan’s tax rate is among the lowest. But the state’s population has remained essentially flat. Earlier this year, Whitmer signed legislation eliminating RTW.
There’s nearly bipartisan agreement that Michigan needs to improve its lagging K-12 education system for the state to become more prosperous. Some experts, including urban researcher Richard Florida, say quality schools is among the most important considerations for families considering relocating.
“Why do Americans move when they have kids? The number one reason is schools,” Florida recently told me.
If they’re looking at Michigan, parents won’t like what they see. The state has consistently ranked near the bottom in testing by the National Assessment for Educational Progress, known as the nation’s report card.
Michigan’s best bets for growing its population and boosting prosperity is attracting recent college graduates, who comprise the most footloose segment of the population, and international immigrants.
What Michigan needs to do to entice college grads isn’t much of a mystery. Data show that young people, especially those with college degrees, are flocking to major metropolitan areas with vibrant central cities.
They value walkable neighborhoods with lots of restaurants, entertainment, recreational opportunities and transit. And they want family-friendly workplace policies when they have children.
Michigan doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel here; it just needs to execute.
There are three components to population growth: natural change in births and deaths, domestic migration and international migration. Of those three, Michigan’s only area of net growth is in international migration.
Deaths have exceeded births in the state by nearly 30,000 between April 1, 2020, and July 1, 2022, according to the latest census data. About 43,000 more people left the state than moved here. But international migration grew by more than 26,000 in the 2020-to-2022-time frame.
Becoming more welcoming to immigrants could pay dividends for Michigan. A quarter of the state’s high-tech companies were started by immigrants, according to Global Detroit. Four of every 10 immigrants in Michigan have a bachelor’s degree.
Working to grow the state’s immigrant population might be controversial. But policymakers will have to make some bold moves if they want more people seeking our pleasant peninsula.
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