Where Are the Babies?

Birth data for 2009 are just coming out from the Michigan Department of Community Health and the story they tell is more of the same – births and birth rates continue to drop.  The 2009 total of 117,309 represents a 23 percent decrease since the most recent post-baby boom period high of 153,080 in 1990.  The crude birth rate (births per 1,000 population) is 11.8, the lowest rate since my records began in 1900.  We can take some solace in the fact that the national rate of 13.5 is its lowest over this period as well.

Population growth is driven by natural increase – births over deaths – and net migration – people moving in vs. moving out.  Since Michigan has been an “out-migrant” state for quite some time now, we must depend on natural increase to drive our growth.  Needless to say, with decreasing births and increasing deaths, due to an aging population, natural increase is no longer saving the day – witness the result of five consecutive years of population loss.

A great deal of discussion of late has concentrated on the need to retain and attract a young, educated workforce and combine that with retention and attraction efforts geared toward immigrants.  Both efforts are extremely important for driving both population and economic growth in the future.  We must be able to increase our attractiveness to a population that is concentrated in the child-bearing years, or we will continue to lose population.

The local story is the same, though the degree of decrease differs.  In spite of the overall population gains experienced by Macomb, Oakland and Washtenaw counties during the 1990-2009 period, all experienced continued decreases in birth numbers in 2009, and all were down from their 1990 high points.  Washtenaw County’s  3,781 birth total was down 9.3 percent;  Macomb County’s 9,298 births represented a decrease of 11.4 percent; and Oakland County’s births dropped 21.2 percent to 13,406.

The Wayne County picture must be taken both with and without the City of Detroit.  As most of you know, Wayne County is estimated to have lost more residents during the past decade than any county in the country.  If we look at births for the county as a whole, we find that they are down by 39.4 percent (24,646 in 2009) since 1990.  However, if we take Detroit out of the equation, the decrease drops to 18.8 percent (13,447).  As we await the results of the 2010 Census, we find that birth trends in the City of Detroit confirm the fact that the city is becoming smaller and older.  The 11,199 births recorded in 2009 represent a 53.6 percent decrease since 1990.

Birth trends are an indicator of a region’s health and vitality.  While birth rates have been decreasing among all racial and ethnic groups, the decreases experienced in Michigan and the Detroit region are not sustainable.  Our hospitals depend on births to contribute to the bottom line.  Where will our pediatricians go if their market dries up?  Babies drive a huge retail industry and their products fill many a store shelf.  Childcare providers, already hit hard by the economic downturn, will not be able to survive.  Most importantly, our school districts, suffering from decreasing property values and state funding, must come to the realization that their potential student cohorts are getting smaller and smaller.  In most districts, their largest market segments have either recently graduated or will be graduating soon.  Their current infrastructure can not be sustained based on current population trends.  Advertising in the hopes of grabbing kids from other districts may, in the short term, keep one district afloat but it is not the way to go in the long run.

We must face the demographic facts and have a serious discussion about the future of school districts and local governments in Michigan.  Things must change!