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Stateside Podcast: Michigan saw more deaths than births in 2020

A woman and young child dressed in warm clothing stand in front of a gravestone. The child is holding the woman's hand.
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In 2020, for the first time in recorded state history, Michigan saw more deaths than births.

More people died in Michigan in 2020 than were born. That’s according to an analysis by a former state demographer.

The trend could have big implications for the Michigan economy, if the state can’t attract more people to move here.

Charles Ballard is an economist at Michigan State University.

“And I think we have not done as good a job - not nearly as good a job - at reminding ourselves and reminding the rest of the world that this is a great place to live. We’ve got all of the freshwater assets, all of the beautiful scenery.”

Ballard was a guest on Stateside on Wednesday.

While COVID-19 contributed to an uptick in deaths, it wasn't the only factor. Kurt Metzger, director emeritus of Data Driven Detroit, said the state has been trending towards this reality for years.

“We tend to send more people away to other states than we receive, so the growth from more births than deaths has always been very important to Michigan,” Metzger said. “But that has been changing over the last few years. We’ve seen this steady decrease in births and fairly rapid increase in deaths.”

In 2020, which marked the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were just under 13,000 more deaths than births. According to Metzger, though, even without deaths due to COVID-19, there still would have been more deaths than births in Michigan.

Michigan wasn’t the only state to have a net population decrease in 2020.

“When you look at Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, this is kind of their future because they are an older state,” Metzger said. “And the whiter the state is, the older the state is, as well.”

As to what will happen moving forward, Metzger speculated that unless immigration or childbirth dramatically increased after the COVID-19 pandemic, this trend would continue for the foreseeable future.

“This is a national demographic trend that we’re seeing,” Metzger said. “We have to decide, what do we do with the areas [that are losing population].”

Charlie Ballard, a professor of economics at Michigan State University, offered an additional perspective, emphasizing the drawbacks of population growth.

“Any population growth comes with some pluses and some minuses, some good things and some not so good things,” Ballard said. “During the baby boom, and with lots of migration from other places, we had to scramble like crazy to build enough roads, schools, sewer systems and bridges to take care of all of those new people. So, there are benefits and there are business opportunities from all of the new people, but there are also challenges.”

The period Ballard mentioned, specifically the years between the 1940s and early 1970s, saw huge economic growth for Michigan.

“We established ourselves early in the 20th century and especially with the Second World War,” Ballard said. “We were the arsenal of democracy, and that tremendous economic power brought people to Michigan, on average about 100,000 a year for 30 years.”

After this growth, demographers from the U.S. Census Bureau expected Michigan’s population would continue to grow at a similar rate. These predictions have not proven true, which Ballard speculated is a result of many young people leaving the state for other economic opportunities.

Ballard emphasized that even with the economic benefits of population growth, there are also negative impacts, particularly on the environment.

“We are straining this planet's carrying capacity,” Ballard said. “We see that in climate change, in endangered species, and in a host of other environmental issues. So, sooner or later, we on this planet are going to have to control our numbers more than we have.”

Looking for more conversations from Stateside? Right this way.

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Stateside’s theme music is by 14KT.

Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions.

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Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Radio’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Radio since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
Emma Ruberg joined Michigan Radio in January as the Digital News Intern. She recently graduated from the University of Michigan with a double major in political science and communications and previously worked as a Senior News Editor for The Michigan Daily covering government and public safety.
Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 9 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.