Poverty in rural Michigan: Relentless aging and few opportunities for those of working age

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The question almost stumped Deborah Smith-Olson, the chairwoman and CEO of Lake-Osceola State Bank.

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By 2025, demographers project more than 40% of Michigan counties will have more than a quarter of their population older than 65. Almost all of those are rural counties.

If someone didn’t go to college, what could they do for a living in Baldwin, a small town in the middle of Michigan? The answer, after a few seconds of thought: Work at Family Dollar. Waitress at Northern Exposure Café. Hope they got one of the jobs soon to be open at a privatized prison holding people awaiting deportation.

None of those pay enough to get ahead, although a prison job might allow someone to have a decent living.

A slightly different question almost stumped Shawn Washington, executive director of Lake County’s Habitat for Humanity branch.

If someone went to college and came back to Baldwin, what could they do for a living? The answer, after a few seconds of thought: Work at a medical center. Teach at the school. Work at the prison in an administrative job. See if there's enough cases to be a lawyer at the local courthouse.

Not a lot of options and a reason why not many young people who go away for school come back.

Jones Homemade Ice Cream parlor is busy after school lets out in rural Baldwin on Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019.

Baldwin’s not alone. Across Michigan, rural counties are stuck in a trap — not enough jobs that pay well to attract young college graduates and not enough college graduates to attract good jobs.

It’s left Michigan’s rural counties with a population that is increasingly uneducated, poor and/or aging, demographics show.

Turning those counties into places with an educated workforce will be a tough go. Big chunks of rural Michigan — including all of the Thumb and most of northern lower Michigan — are higher education deserts, without easy access to any four-year or community college.

And if it’s not corrected? The future for a big swath of the state looks pretty dark.

Aging issues

Five years ago, Walt and Mary Talsma did something they've been talking about for years. They sold their home in Grand Rapids and moved full-time into what started out as their cottage on a lake in rural Newaygo County.

"We always loved it up here," Talsma said while pumping gas at a Newaygo gas station this summer. "Especially in the summer and the fall, but we never were here enough. We wanted to be here all the time."

The rural Michigan the Talsmas moved into is a complex place, full of natural beauty, a slower pace of life, tight-knit communities, aging population, struggling economies and an uncertain future.

The Talsmas fit demographically — and illustrate an added challenge. Almost 30% of Michigan's 83 counties have an average age older than 55. All are rural counties.

By 2025, demographers project more than 40% of Michigan counties will have more than a quarter of their population older than 65. Almost all of those are rural counties.

"No other state has that," demographer Kurt Metzger said. "It’s this relentless move toward aging."

That's going to place a lot of stress on already-stressed systems, most notably health care.

Lack of hospitals

On a normal day, it takes Marissa Long between 25 and 30 minutes to get from her house outside of Port Austin at the top of Michigan's Thumb down to Bad Axe.

On a normal day.

Then there was a mid-May day three years ago. Her husband made the drive with Marissa in the passenger seat in 17 minutes.

Forty-two minutes after arriving at McLaren Thumb Region Hospital, she gave birth to her daughter.

"I just remember thinking, I'm going to deliver in the car on the side of the road,' " she said recently, her daughter skipping around her as they walked into the hospital to visit a friend. "Thankfully, we don't really have traffic on the roads between here and there."

That's not to say she wasn't worried about the drive, or hasn't thought about it since.

"I grew up in Livonia, so it was easy to get to a hospital for just about anything," she said. "I love living where we do — it's so much better for us. But I think about what would happen if something happened to us and we needed lots of medical help quickly. What about if we got really sick and had to be at the hospital or somewhere on a regular basis? That's a lot of driving we'd have to do."

It's not uncommon in rural Michigan to have to drive to find a place that offers labor and delivery services. If you live in one of 36 Michigan counties, no facility in your county delivers babies. That's up from 25 counties in 2004.

Two hospitals — Sparrow Carson Hospital in Carson City and Sturgis Hospital — ended labor and delivery services in 2018.

The reason for the struggles is a simple math problem. Take a shrinking and aging population, match it up with fixed costs and see what happens.

For example, in order to run a labor and delivery department, a hospital has to have a doctor on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That means the hospital needs a minimum of two doctors, but really three, because no one wants to be on call every day of the week, said Laura Appel, senior vice president and chief innovation officer, Michigan Health and Hospital Association.

Those fixed cost issues are huge for rural hospitals. An MRI machine, other technology or staff costs the hospital the same amount of money whether it's used 50 times a year or 300 times a year.

"They don't have volume to support fixed costs," Appel said. "A volume-based funding method doesn’t respond to fixed costs. Hospitals only get paid when people need services, but still have fixed costs. (Medicare/Medicaid) generally doesn’t pay full cost of services."

It's not just in rural Michigan where the stress is felt.

Sixty-four U.S. rural hospitals closed from 2013-17, according to a 2018 report from the federal government. That's about 3% of all rural hospitals. Most of those that closed were in the rural South.

In the 1980s, Michigan had more than 220 hospitals. Today, it has 133, with 81 offering obstetrics units. Most of the state's hospitals are clustered in urban centers, with several cities having multiple hospitals.

Michigan classifies these counties as urban (and the rest rural): metro Detroit (Wayne, Macomb, Oakland, Lapeer, St. Clair, Monroe) Washtenaw, Berrien, Genesee, Kent, Muskegon, Ottawa, Allegan, Jackson, Kalamazoo and Calhoun, Ingham, Eaton, Clinton, Saginaw, Bay and Midland.

It's not just hospitals that are under pressure. The ratio of doctors to residents is much higher in Michigan’s rural counties than in their urban peers. Michigan's state average ratio is 1,261 residents to every doctor. Those numbers are much higher across rural Michigan, including in Lake County — where Baldwin is — which has the highest ratio with 11,496 residents for every doctor.

The reason? Economics.

Many of the rural counties have high poverty rates, which means more residents on government assistance insurance which generally pays less for services. Good jobs tend to come with health insurance, Appel points out.

The lack of good jobs also hurts in a more practical way. Recruiting doctors to come to a rural area can be tough, in part, because many have spouses looking for professional jobs, which can be lacking in rural Michigan.

Poorest county

Baldwin sits in the bottom third of Lake County, the poorest county in the state.

Its median household income is just over $32,000 a year, or about half of the median income in Washtenaw County or Oakland County, the state's wealthiest counties. Lake County's median household income is about $13,000 a year lower than Wayne County, home of Detroit.

The average Lake County household has about 2.5 members, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. According to federal income standards, a family of three making $21,330 a year is considered to be living in poverty. For a family of four, that number is $25,550. A family of six with the county's average yearly income would be considered to be living in poverty.

Lake County is not an agricultural area. Half the county is federal or state forest. The road into Baldwin is dotted with houses here and there, set back in woods. A few mobile homes are perched just off the road, dirt driveways leading back to them. A few advertise wood for sale; but there's no real businesses to speak off, not even a McDonald's or Taco Bell.

Don't look for manufacturing — it's not here either. There is a prison, closed and opened under different state administrations and now opening as a private prison for non-U.S. citizen criminals. More than 260 people have been hired and more are expected to be hired. It's got the town buzzing.

"In 2005, Gov. Granholm negated a state contract" with the private owners of the prison, Smith-Olson said. "That really hurt the economy, and lot of houses ended up back in the bank's balance sheet."

But despite the hopes for what all those paychecks might mean to the local economy, privately, folks in Baldwin are worried. The company, GEO Group, that runs the prison signed a 10-year contract with the federal government, but what happens if the nation's administration changes and the need for detaining non-U.S. citizens goes away?

That Lake County is the state's poorest is not a surprise to Washington, the executive director of Habitat for Humanity in Lake County and president of the Baldwin school district's school board. She sees the stress that places on those living in poverty.

"The day-to-day is unemployment," she said. "They are looking for a job. Don’t have enough for basic needs. The same families you see at the food pantry are having utilities shut off.

"You’re not living well. You’re living an unhealthy lifestyle in every aspect. Mentally. Physically. Spiritually. It’s still one foot on a banana peel and one foot on concrete.

"They are tired. You can see the weariness on their face."

That weariness also etches the faces of those living in poverty in urban settings.

H. Luke Shaefer, the director of Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan and a professor of social work and public policy, has seen it in both places.

"If we go to Detroit, if we go to Chicago, if we go to the Upper Peninsula, we hear about housing and utilities," he said. "It’s the same story, different details. In the U.P., it’s not DTE and shutoffs people are struggling with, it’s coming up with money to buy propane or even wood in some places."

Coming up with money to pay utilities is a matter of having money. Having money means a job — and not just any job, but a decent paying one.

Shaefer, who had studied urban poverty, came across rural poverty when he traveled into the Deep South in 2013 and 2014 while writing his book "$2.00 a Day."

"The availability of social services and many health services is just at a much lower level than in most urban areas," he said. "We’re writing a lot about 'hometown heroes' who are steadfast volunteers organizing a food pantry or a services center in lots of rural areas. Or there might be one food pantry for a whole county,

"Which then brings up the distances. Even if someone has transportation, the distances between services are so long."

Jesse Long, 32, of rural Sanilac County, doesn't have a decent paying job now. He doesn't even have a job.

"I had one, working construction," he said. "It didn't pay too bad. But then my car blew its transmission and I didn't have two or three thousand bucks to get it fixed or get something new."

Without a way to get to the job site, Long got fired.

Transportation issues are a problem for those living in poverty both in rural and urban settings. But there's a difference there as well — most urban areas have some form of public transportation, which, even if poorly run, can eventually get someone to a job or to services to help them.

Long, who is living with his cousin, isn't sure what he'll end up doing.

"He (Long's cousin) thinks his place might be hiring, so I'm hoping he can put in a good word," Long said. "Then I could just ride with him until I got some money."

Those living in poverty in rural areas can also run into snags in getting help from the government or nonprofits, Shaefer said.

The amount of money flowing from the federal government and nonprofit organizations into rural areas is less than what's flowing into urban areas, he said. That's in large part because of impact — since the Great Society days of Lyndon Johnson, federal policy has tried to make impacts on the largest amount of people and there tends to be bigger masses of those living in poverty in big cities.

The second issue has to do with how aid is handed out.

A person in a rural area might have 10 acres of land on which their family has lived for a generation or two. When counting assets to determine aid, the government or some nonprofits can consider that land as an asset, even though there's no real market for the land or cash readily available from it. Sometimes other items, like a fishing boat used to fish and feed the family, can be treated the same as a pleasure craft a richer person would own.

It all circles back to jobs. And that's where rural areas find themselves in a bind.

"It’s a catch-22 that a lot of our communities are trying to figure out," Shaefer said. "A lot of our problems are because we don’t have jobs, but if there are jobs, do we have the workforce for them?"

When Hannah Rodriguez was at Benzie Central High School in rural northwest Michigan, students were placed on one of two tracks. The first led through career/technical education to a job straight out of high school. The second led through more academic classes to college — and, by college, everyone meant a four-year school.

At the time, there was no opportunity for a student to move back and forth — the advanced placement classes at the school were scheduled at the same time as the career technical classes.

Rodriguez, a 2009 graduate, like many rural students, was "super ready to expand my horizons" and ended up heading to the University of Michigan, where, as a sophomore, she did the school's Semester in Detroit program, where she fell in love with community development.

Her senior year, she did a thesis on youth community engagement in rural students and then ended up going to Michigan State University for a master's degree.

She came back to the region she grew up in, ending up coordinating the Launch Manistee, a countywide cradle-to-career education network operated as a community leadership initiative of the Manistee County Community Foundation.

She's spending her time trying to increase college-going in an area 30 minutes or longer from the nearest community college, depending where in Manistee County a person lives.

That starts with redefining college to anything that is post-secondary learning, be it a one-year certificate or a four-year bachelor's degree.

"There's a variety of paths you can take," she said. "Even in the trades, you still need some sort of credential post-high school."

That's because the success stories of people who didn't go to high school and make a good living are becoming hard to come by. Rodriguez knows this — her parents and grandparents didn't go to college and have run a successful business for years.

"I know they are the exception to the rule," she said.

She and others across rural Michigan — and rural America broadly — know the stakes are incredibly high.

The key? Some form of post-high school training, something that often comes from community colleges.

The problem? Huge stretches of rural Michigan and rural America lack easy access to any college — much less a community college.

"If you look at a community that has college or access to a college, they are so much better well off," Randy Smith, the president/director of the Rural Community College Alliance said. "They bring workforce training. Without a college or easy access, those rural areas are going to shrivel up and die."

That's because most of rural Michigan is trapped in a vicious cycle Shawn Washington of Lake County's Habitat for Humanity knows too well.

"Without access to higher ed you’re going to be limited in what you can attract in terms of jobs," she said. "We have the bodies of a workforce. We need to see some real job training. We need to find a pathway to bring this back."

David Jesse has been covering higher education issues in Michigan for more than a decade. He was named the best education beat reporter in the nation for 2018 by the Education Writers Association and is a 2016 Reporting Fellow of the EWA. Contact him: 313-222-8851 or djesse@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter: @reporterdavidj

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