Advocates for rural Michigan are imploring Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to create a Cabinet-level post to focus attention on the least populated swaths of the state.
One day after the first-term Democrat offered her State of the State, a coalition of groups held a news conference Thursday to draw attention to population losses, diminished health care and other challenges in rural Michigan.
“While many of Michigan’s urban and suburban areas are faring well under current economic growth, the economic and social conditions of Michigan’s rural communities remain dauntingly behind,” said Marty Fittante, CEO of InvestUP and co-chairman of the Rural Affairs and Development Coalition.
The coalition of nonprofits and other groups represents residents of 59 counties (out of 83) where nearly one-fifth of the state’s population resides.
Advocates contend special attention is needed to help that huge swath of the state, which is battling higher rates of migration and population loss and higher rates of depression and suicide while rural health systems are under pressure to merge or close.
The coalition has had informal talks with the governor’s office about its request, members said during Thursday’s press conference.
Whitmer's office said she has no intention of creating another Cabinet position but has unveiled many measures to "meet the concerns of Michiganders who live in rural Michigan," a spokesman, Bobby Leddy, told Bridge Magazine on Friday.
"She has led on improving education and skills training, creating more good-paying jobs, making health care more affordable and accessible, and combating the opioid epidemic," Leddy wrote in an email. "She introduced Michigan Reconnect to ensure that Michiganders have a tuition-free pathway to the skills they need for the jobs of today and tomorrow. She fought for a weighted foundation formula and tripled the number of literacy coaches to improve the education outcomes in schools. She called on the legislature to codify the Affordable Care Act into law to protect it against Republican attacks. And she formed the Michigan Opioids Task Force, which has made recommendations for prevention and treatment."
Rural Michigan has been beset by a range of issues over the last decade, problems exhaustively covered in Bridge.
Largely agricultural and sparsely populated, rural Michigan stretches from the Ohio border to the Upper Peninsula. It includes relatively wealthy areas like Traverse City and poorer areas with few people and employers.
The regions are diverse geographically but are yet similar – their populations are among the oldest, whitest and least educated in the state. There are few community colleges or universities and migration out of those areas are the highest in the state.
Many have seen the population age substantially – Michigan has the highest number of counties nationwide where the median age is 50 or higher. In many of those counties, there are more deaths each year than births.
That means there are fewer working-age people. Even in Traverse City, which is growing as its assets continue to draw both visitors and full-time residents, is facing challenges.
Warren Call, president and CEO of Traverse Connect, which promotes business in the tourist city and its region, said the area is losing residents who are 35 to 49 years old.
“It’s a hollowing out of our community,” he said.
If Michigan created a cabinet level post, it’d be the first in the nation, though other states have created offices that focus on rural affairs.
Michigan invests $110 million per year in its state Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, but that largely focuses on agriculture.
Coalition members splitting the agriculture department from rural development – and elevating the latter to the cabinet – would cost $2.5 million. They declined to say how much actual policy changes that favor rural areas could cost.
“We think the [Whitmer] administration is in a better position to decide where the opportunities are and the cost,” Fittante said.
During the budget standoff late last year, Whitmer feuded with Republican legislators and vetoed a number of items in rural GOP districts, sparking outrage.
Most of those cuts were reversed, but questions about equity remain. One day after Whitmer announced $3.5 billion in roads funding on Wednesday, some Republican leaders complained too many projects were steered to southeast Michigan, where half the state’s population resides.
Editor's note: This article was updated Friday, Jan. 31, to include a comment from Gretchen Whitmer's staff.