State Demographer Says “Be a Place That People Want to Come and Live”

For nearly 90-minutes Thursday morning, some 150 plus community leaders from a broad swath of life drilled through tons of population data from the state to the region, and eventually all the way down to individual counties, as Michigan’s State Demographer displayed an eye-popping array of charts and graphs addressing two key subjects: Population Trends and the importance of the 2020 Census.

State Demographer Dr. Eric Guthrie churned through a prolific PowerPoint presentation comparing numbers past, present and projected into the future. On many occasions, it was not the news that many in the room wanted to hear, but that’s essentially why sponsors, including Lake Michigan College, Kinexus Group and Cornerstone Alliance, invited the audience in — to get the unvarnished truth that we’ve been far less than stellar in population trending, and need to assure a solid and accurate count is taken next year to keep valuable federal dollars flowing into the collective community of Michigan’s Great Southwest.

While the mind-numbing whirlwind of numbers cascaded from the screen, Guthrie nicely summed it all up at one point near the end of his discussion saying a major key to population growth here is net migration in of new people, so “You have to be a welcoming community, and a place that people want to come and live.”

Up until 2004 Michigan was growing its population nicely, but in the decade from 2000 to 2010 we became the only state in the nation to have a net loss in population, and Berrien County was along for the ride. While the state’s population has been very, very slowly increasing since 2015, the growth is not projected to continue unending into the future largely because of the sheer volume of Baby Boomers residing across the state.

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Guthries says, “There are only three things that affect the population over time — births, deaths, and migration (both in and out).” The natural decline of more deaths than births in Michigan is being helped out by in-migration of people moving into the state. That number could continue to push the population higher as more Boomers retire, leaving top paying jobs to be filled by younger people attracted into the state by those job opportunities.

The critical nature of the 2020 Census is readily evident when you take into account that each person counted generates anywhere from $1,400 to $3,000 annually in federal money flowing to the state.

Guthrie says, “When it comes to the 2020 Census, I go with two key points. One, it’s about money. We’re talking about the distribution of hundreds of billions of dollars of federal funding annually, so we’re talking about a per Michigander cost of between $1,400 and $3,000 per person, depending upon the concentration of the population and the composition of the population.” He quickly adds,”However, I think the most important thing that I talk about even more often than anything else is the importance of ‘voice.’ It’s very difficult to advocate for your community, whether that be a municipal-type of community, or a community of color — or anything like that — if you can’t substantiate your existence, and it’s through federal statistics that we generally substantiate our existence, and tell the rest of the country that we’re important.” If you aren’t counted, you lose the voice you want to push for the changes you want to see made.

One of the day’s organizers, Todd Gustafson, CEO at the Kinexus Group, echoes Dr. Guthrie’s concerns on next year’s count, saying, “The Census is really important, and I know that a lot of efforts throughout our community and groups are coming together, and United Way is a central part of that, because if we don’t get that filled out, we will lose resources that our community is currently enjoying now, and might be limited in the future, which will make it more difficult to address the challenges that we just heard today.”

While Dr. Guthrie, who deals with a profound realm of statistics admits, “We compete with everyone else for talent, and have seen a lot of out-migration for years — losing people for years — you are projected to turn things around somewhat, but you need to maintain your population by making a place for new people to come in.” He shared a lot of data on the reality of available housing from owning to renting, and occupied versus vacant. He talked about education and poverty as markers for population increases or losses, and the critical nature of the census tally.

When I asked him afterward to sum up how he sees Berrien County and Michigan’s Great Southwest, he told me, “I would say that when we talk about this area, you are set up in a good position because you are centrally located in terms of regions of economic power. You’re very close to Chicago which is a very good place to be because of the amount of in-migration we get from Chicago, especially in the form of returning Michigan residents.” He adds, “I would say that you’re doing well in terms of the anticipated population increases through migration, your fertility rates are still higher than the state, so you’re going to be delaying those losses due to natural decline for a little while, moving into the future, so you’re set up to do well in terms of moderating population losses and probably even seeing some population increases, perhaps small, but that’s not uncommon for areas across the state.”

Kinexus leader Gustafson says of today’s session at LMC, “My hope is that the people take away key information, and that we increase the education and awareness about some of the issues that our region and our communities are facing, because if we’re not honest about what those issues are, or if we don’t recognize them, it’s impossible to deal squarely with them.” He says when it comes to the degree of our area’s lack of educational attainment, “It could potentially put our region at a disadvantage when we compete with other regions for economic development, and just growth, and economic vibrancy. So we want to make sure that people walk away with today’s information, and think, ‘Hmm, what can we all do together to address some of these issues?’” He concludes, “If that happens I think that this was a win for this morning.”

Declining population, an aging workforce, and below average educational attainment are key worries across the board, but if the community can continue to break down barriers to resolve those issues, economic development can help right the ship and lead the community into the future. Stay tuned.