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It's the Birth Rate, Stupid

Explaining the "curious" population trend in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
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The Lake of the Clouds in the Porcupine Mountains of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

The Lake of the Clouds in the Porcupine Mountains of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Go ahead and blame Bigfoot. The land of the Yooper is home to a mystery. "Is it mining? Timber? Weather? Upper Peninsula population trend puzzles":

A curious, century-old population trend in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula shows a yo-yoing cycle of growth and decline every 20 years.

The U.P. grew slightly in the 1910s, 1930s, 1950s, 1970s, 1990s and, just like Old Faithful, is growing early in the 2010s, according to data from the U.S. Census. It declined slightly in the other decades, including a loss of 2 percent from 2000 to 2010.

Must be something about that place to have such inexplicable ups and downs. Michigan is cool. That's why everyone stays. Michigan is rotten. That's why everyone leaves. Brain drain:

Michigan's "brain drain" isn't as bad as it might seem.

That's the opinion of state demographer Ken Darga, the state's leading authority on Michigan's population by the numbers. He said Michigan has retained college graduates better than most states, even as the recession worsened.

But since 2004, far fewer young college grads from other states have moved to Michigan than in previous years, creating a net loss. The number of those leaving Michigan actually has leveled off.

"The brain drain is a very serious concern," Darga said. "The big misunderstanding is that it's a chronic problem. It's not a chronic problem. It's a fairly recent development."

Emphasis added. Does not compute. Michigan sucks. Everyone moves to Chicago. Geographic myths rule our lives. Darga to the Yooper rescue:

Kenneth Darga, Michigan’s state demographer, says he might be on to an answer: Generational gaps created by the Great Depression, World War II and the Baby Boom.

“The Great Depression and World War II caused a decline in births, and that was followed by the Baby Boom,” Darga said. “The Baby Boom was followed by an echo of the Great Depression when the small generation born in the Depression was in its peak childbearing years.

“That phase was followed by an echo of the Baby Boom a couple decades ago, when that large generation was having children, and we are currently in the second echo of the Great Depression.”

The recent recession and slow recovery seem to be delaying another echo of the Baby Boom, he said.

In other words, those major events created gaps in the distribution of ages that are reflected in birth and death rates over the century in cycles of roughly 25 years, Darga said.

“I doubt that there is a mystical 20-year cycle unique to the UP that trumps other factors like mining, lumbering, agriculture, economic development, colleges, prisons, second homes, retiree migration and all of the other factors that affect population in the UP,” Darga said.

It's the birth rate, stupid. The tendency is to look for a local trend to explain the changing landscape. Remarkably, national or global trends never enter into the conversation. More obscure are the impacts of history. A natural decline in freshman enrollment becomes a MOOC revolution, not a baby bust.

Fifty years ago, the population was booming. Soon-to-be Rust Belters promised pensions to all the teachers needed to teach the deluge of children. Better educated children would prosper, but have less children of their own. The next generation wouldn't be big enough to fund the pension, not to mention the flight to the suburban taxation loophole. The number of people aged between 15 and 19 living in the city proper would fall off the cliff. The explanation would be brain drain.