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Michigan’s brain drain is back, as best and brightest leave state

brain drain

When it comes to population, Michigan is no longer a rarity –  a state losing population while every other one is gaining it.

The state has gained residents since bottoming out in 2009 after five straight years of decline. But recovery has been tepid and from July 2018 to July 2019, the state’s population increased by just under 3,000 people to nearly 10 million, down from average annual growth of 17,500 the previous three years.

And while that’s still better than other states –  six have lost population since 2010 – Michigan’s slowing growth worries state and local government officials who rely on taxes to support services.

What’s worse: Early data indicate those who are leaving the state tend to be younger and more educated, exactly the sort of residents Michigan leaders want to attract.

And that’s despite a robust economy. So what’s going on?

One obvious issue: Births in Michigan are down to their lowest level since 1941, while deaths are increasing. Last year, there were only 13,500 more births than deaths, nearly half of what it was as recently as 2012.


Deaths will eclipse births in Michigan by 2030, a few years before they do nationwide, said Eric Guthrie, the state’s demographer. At the same time, immigration from other countries is decreasing.

Immigration has fallen in recent decades and the rate of decline has intensified since 2016, which some experts partially attribute to President Trump’s immigration policy

Nationwide, immigration is down 41 percent, or more than 451,000 people since 2016. Michigan has felt that decline too, with international immigration falling 52 percent to just 13,146, the lowest number in decades.


And nationally, fewer people are moving between states, down to the lowest point since the Census began to measure migration in 1947, according to researchers.

For much of Michigan’s history, the state has been a destination. In the 2000s, though, some 570,000 residents left for other states. So the decline in the last couple years pales compared to the 2000s or the losses during the early 1980s. 

“Michigan is sustaining net out-migration probably due to young people leaving the state for opportunities elsewhere but it doesn't look as dire as MIchigan's situation a decade ago, or other states today,” said William Frey, a research professor with the Population Studies Center and Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan and a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution.

Net losses had stabilized but now they are increasing again, which Guthrie said is troubling considering Michigan’s historically low unemployment rates and rising housing values.


Why folks are moving is unclear. 

“It’s going to take a lot more investigation to get the ‘whys’,” Guthrie said.

But what Guthrie and economists know is that movers are typically younger and more educated –  exactly the people Michigan would want to stay.

Those leaving Michigan had a median age of just under 30 years old and more than 45 percent have a college degree. Compare that to non-movers: Their median age is 43 and 28.5 percent have a college degree.

So combining all of the population elements, Michigan’s 2019 population was estimated at 9,986,857 –  just a tick under 10 million. It would take nearly five years of growth like last year to finally get over 10 million again (it was estimated the state had hit that mark in 2001 but fell below in 2009).


Nationally, as Frey noted, Michigan is not alone when it comes to out-migration. A lot of states are net losers to other states, including New York and California, which saw over 200,000 more people leave the state than come to it.

And in the Midwest, Illinois is losing over 100,000 a year to other states; five states lost more than Michigan. In the Midwest, only Indiana has had a net gain from other states.

Domestic migration, national view

Note: States in orange lost more population to other states than they gained.

However, places like California also gained population from other sources. For instance, California, which has four times the population of Michigan, had more than 180,000 more births than deaths from 2018 to 2019. 

That’s a natural increase that was 13 times larger than Michigan’s natural increase. And California still had over 74,000 immigrants, nearly six times more than Michigan.

So overall, despite losses to other states, California has grown 6.1 percent since 2010; Michigan just 1 percent.

The numbers, of course, are estimates. The official count will occur after this year’s decennial Census.

Overall population change, 2010-2019

Note: States in orange lost population.

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