Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Deaths outnumber births in many rural counties


Capital News Service

LANSING – Twenty-eight counties had more deaths than births during the last decade, primarily rural ones in both the Upper and Lower peninsulas, new Census data shows.

In five counties, deaths outnumbered births by more than 1,000: Iron, Roscommon, Gogebic, Huron and Iosco.

The major reasons for “natural decline” are lack of jobs and young people seeking opportunities elsewhere, officials say.

Natural decline contributed to — but is not solely responsible for — the fact that Michigan was the only state to lose population during the past decade.

People keep vacation homes in Iosco County and go there to retire, said Michigan State University Extension educator Linda Stemen, who is based in Tawas City.

“Our population is extremely elderly and older,” she said.

A struggling hay and dairy agricultural industry has contributed to young people leaving the area to find employment elsewhere, she said.

And the ones who’ve stayed are struggling economically, she said. “I know a lot of farmers who are working two jobs.”

Among other counties experiencing natural decline are Alpena, Clare, Gladwin, Lake, Mackinac, Manistee, Sanilac and Ontonagon.

Closures in the mining, shipbuilding and paper mill industries have spurred 25-to-40-year-olds to leave Ontonagon County to hunt for jobs, Ontonagon Area School District Superintendent Gray Webber said.

“We’ve lost a great number of young families. We’ve retained many retirees and those that had little or no opportunity to go elsewhere,” he said.

Last year, his district’s lower and upper-grade schools were consolidated into one campus with 463 students, due to low enrollment, he said.

Having fewer young people also hurts the community’s social life, he said.

“Whenever you have special events, there are far few people to attend and be supportive. People are less mobile and don’t have as much involvement in civic activities, whether it’s Christmas or sporting events,” he said.

Local hospitals stopped delivering babies 15 years ago, he said. “You have to travel 60 miles to have delivery services. People do not do home births.”

However, he remembers when small manufacturing industries were booming in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. “There was optimism and opportunity felt in our town. Now it’s essentially a depressed county scraping to keep everything going, whether it be roads, the hospital, the schools — everything is taking an enormous effort.”

In 2010, Sanilac County had 14 births, compared to 175 in 2005. All were home deliveries, County Clerk Linda Kozfkay said.

“If there’s an emergency, that’s the only time a hospital here is a birthing center,” she said

Dante Chinni, director of Patchwork Nation, said small towns where agriculture is the main source of income are losing young people who may be looking for careers outside of agriculture.

“Generally if you’re talking about natural decline, it’s obviously in places with older populations,” he said. Patchwork Nation is a project based in Washington which examines U.S. demographics.

“It’s increasingly difficult to make a living there. These are dying communities in a way. They’re most likely going to be struggling,” he said.

But other parts of the country will continue to grow, he said. “Young people are flocking to metropolitan areas more than ever before.”

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.


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