More people died in Michigan in 2020 than were born. Impacts could be severe

Hayley Harding
The Detroit News

More people died in Michigan in 2020 than were born, according to state records, the first time that has happened since at least 1900. 

Michigan isn't the first state where that's happened, and it won't be the last. The national birth has been falling for years. But experts say that if Michigan can't start bringing in more immigrants and attracting residents from other states the way that places like Texas, Colorado and North Carolina have, it could spell serious problems for the economic future of the state.

Preliminary data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services shows 104,166 people were born in 2020 while 117,087 people died.

In Michigan, COVID drove those death numbers up from years prior — MDHHS says there were 11,362 COVID deaths in the state in 2020, which doesn't cover the 12,921 difference between births and deaths two years ago. That number is also more than 6% higher than the around 99,000 people who died in the state for each of the few years prior. 

Demography experts say the state was likely to hit the point of "natural decrease," the term for when deaths outpace births in a place, around that time regardless.

"This is not a shock. We've been talking about this coming for some time now," said Kurt Metzger, demographer and director emeritus of Data Driven Detroit. "We're at a point we have to do something about it."

Data shows that for decades, the number of births in the state has fallen while the number of deaths has risen. The number of births in the state peaked in 1957, when more than 208,000 babies were born in the state, and while there have been years when the numbers rose since, the overall trend has been a decline.

Michigan's population has grown because of immigration and births, Metzger said, as the state usually has more people move out than come in from other states in any given year. 

With the birth rate down, it's possible Michigan's total number of people shrank in 2020. Metzger and other experts believe the natural decrease will be even bigger in 2021. Estimates from the Census Bureau, released last month, indicate that Michigan had nearly 17,000 fewer people in July 2021 than it did in July 2020.

When states lose people, it can cause a variety of problems. The biggest are typically economic, experts say. Lou Glazer, president of nonpartisan economic research group Michigan Future Inc., said a shrinking population can make it difficult for a state to retain jobs or encourage existing employers to expand because they need a steady stream of employees to run their business. New companies often won't even consider states that are getting smaller, he said, instead choosing to get started in rapidly expanding places.

Katie Zoli, a labor and delivery nurse, from left, Elizabeth Mettam, a labor and delivery nurse, and Alison Thomas, an OB/GYN resident, prepare a labor and delivery suite at the Family Birth Center at Beaumont Hospital Royal Oak on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022.

Many places, including several Michigan cities, try to avoid losing out on businesses by offering tax incentives to large employers. Otie McKinley, a spokesman for the Michigan Economic Development Corp., which works to attract businesses to the state, also points to two efforts from the past year specifically designed to train and attract employees for Michigan businesses. 

The Regional Talent Innovation Grants, which use Community Development Block Grant-CARES Act funding, provides a total of $7.5 million to local development groups to build "competitive training pilot programs" designed for specific jobs wanted by regional employers. Such programs, experts say, are an important way to make sure that it's not only white-collar workers who can choose to stay in Michigan.

There is also Michigan STEM Forward, which aims to place up to 450 Michigan college students in science, technology, engineering and math majors at internships throughout the state. The program contributes half an intern's pay, while the company pays the other half. The program is an expansion of the work Ann Arbor SPARK, a nonprofit that aims to promote economic development, is doing. The program in Ann Arbor has been successful, administrators say, with 84% of students who do the program taking jobs in Michigan upon graduation. McKinley did not have information on either program's state-level success yet.

Other problems include a loss of political power — even with a net gain of people from 2010 to 2020, Michigan lost a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives because it was not growing as fast as other states, such as Montana, Oregon and Florida — and having to figure out what, if anything, needs to close. And since all places won't shrink evenly, that toll can be felt more acutely in rural places and the Upper Peninsula. 

"Having a smaller population is not inherently bad, but adjusting to that can be a tremendous challenge," said Reynolds Farley, research professor emeritus at the University of Michigan's Population Studies Center. "It can mean a lot of things, including closing schools or combining districts in some areas, which is something that typically has strenuous opposition."

To bring people in, in addition to jobs, people also have to consider the factor of cool, Glazer said. Some of the fastest-growing places in the country, such as Austin or Minneapolis, are really cool places, with thriving social scenes, new restaurants, good transit and lots of amenities — the kinds of things people, particularly younger people who might have children, are looking for, he said. 

"Michigan has largely chosen not to focus on that," Glazer said.

It's for that reason that some have said it may be time for Michigan to get a rebrand, one that focuses on what the state offers, including outdoor recreation, waterfront living and growing industries. Metzger said any efforts should focus particularly on attracting young people and retaining those who graduate from Michigan colleges and universities.

Luke Ranker, who moved from Fort Worth, Texas, to attend graduate school at the University of Michigan, said he felt the state had a lot to offer if marketed itself better.

Ranker, 30, studies urban planning. Originally from a small town in Kansas, he moved to Ann Arbor in 2021 because he liked the faculty and he was hoping for a place that felt more like home than some of the East Coast schools he applied to.

He hasn't yet decided where he wants to live when he finishes his program, but he said he wouldn't mind working in a place like Ann Arbor or Detroit. He and his classmates have found that housing in Michigan is often more affordable than some of the places they moved from, and while the cold weather can be an adjustment for those from the south, it's not often a dealbreaker.

"Michigan has a lot to offer in terms of opportunity for people," Ranker said. "If the state is able to market it? That could make such a big difference."


Twitter: @Hayley__Harding