Communities with declining and aging populations face challenging futures. In order to thrive and grow, communities rely on attracting and retaining families with or planning to have children. Economic opportunities follow growth as well. Families are important drivers of consumption; families provide employers with a working age supply of employees. In this important election year, voters should demand that politicians seeking office tell us their plans for reversing the trend of the Upper Peninsula’s declining and aging population. Nothing is more important than reversing this trend.
Dickinson and Iron Counties have not been exempt from a decline in population. Data from the World Population Review website reveals that, since 2020, Dickinson County has seen a decline in population of 5.3% and Iron County has seen a decline of 7.27%. Just as important, as our population has declined, our counties have aged. Even in a state wherein the age of the population is the twelfth highest in the nation at 39.8 years, Dickinson County’s average age of 46.5 years and Iron County’s 54.7 years, best the state average.
More evidence for the decline in family population can be seen in what is happening in our schools. The mischooldata.org website lists the combined enrollment of public school districts served by the Dickinson-Iron ISD as 5,253 students in 2012-2013, but just 4,905 students, or a 6.6% decline, in 2021-2022. Of the six districts in Dickinson and Iron Counties, only one district, Breitung Townships Schools, saw an increase in students over the same period. Based on the decline in population of surrounding districts, it is safe to assume that Breitung’s gains only came at the expense of a decline in its neighboring districts and is not due to an increase in school aged families in our region.
In order for our communities to thrive and grow, these trends must be stopped and reversed. Quite simply, any region that cannot supply its own economy with the working aged and skilled workers businesses need can thrive. Employers who cannot find employees will either have to close up shop or move away. Families will flow to where the well paying jobs are…as we see in regions of the nation that gained U.S. House Representatives as opposed to losing representation, as Michigan did.
While politicians may want to divert our attention away from answering what can be done to reverse this trend, voters must insist that those seeking office not be allowed to avoid answering questions about what they plan to do in order to bring families and businesses to our community.
Finger pointing at the “other” party, whichever party that is, must not be tolerated or accepted as a means of avoiding solutions to this vital topic. Our communities need new, attractive, and available housing for families. Where will those new neighborhoods go and what can be done to support this development? Schools across the U.P. and in our counties are struggling to fill teacher vacancies in nearly every grade and subject level. How do we attract young people to enter the teaching profession and to stay there for a career? What sorts of employees do our local employers need and how can our municipalities and communities work to attract those sorts of employees and families?
These questions require collaboration, regardless of party affiliation, research, hard work, and clear plans for vitalizing and growing our very special region. This important election year brings with it a chance for voters to elect politicians who are dedicated to finding answers to these entrenched and difficult challenges. Voters must insist on real plans and viable answers.