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Need to reverse aging, declining population in UP

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; they provide employers with a working-age supply of employees. In this important election year, voters should demand politicians seeking office tell 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 population decline of 5.3% and Iron County a 7.27% decline. Just as important, as our population has declined, the counties have aged. Even in a state where the average age of the population is 12th-highest in the nation at 39.8 years, Dickinson County’s 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 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, Breitung Townships Schools, saw an increase over the same period. Based on the region’s decline in population, it is safe to assume Breitung’s gains came at the expense of a decline in its neighboring districts and is not due to an increase in families with school-age children.

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 seats as opposed to losing one, as Michigan did.

While politicians may want to divert our attention, voters must insist that those seeking office not be allowed to avoid answering questions about what they plan to do to bring families and businesses to our community.

Finger-pointing at the “other” party, whichever 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 teaching vacancies in nearly every grade and subject level. How do we attract and retain young people in the profession? What sorts of employees do our local employers need and how can our municipalities and communities work to attract them and their 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 to elect politicians who are dedicated to finding answers to these entrenched and difficult challenges.Voters must insist on real plans and viable answers.

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