STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Michigan's economy is improving. Why don't we feel better about it?


I came across a paradox today. It came in the form of poll results, conducted by Gallup. Specifically, it came from the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index™ ("The World's Largest and Preeminent Source for Well Being Data"). 

For the poll, Gallup asks thousands of people all across the world how they feel about five categories of "well-being." The categories are purpose, social, financial, community and physical. The poll results are then translated into an overall well-being score, which can be used to compare different communities, states and countries. 

And, yeah, Michigan doesn't rank too well. 

Before we go too far, I should say these results are used to sell a product. Healthways, the company that partners with Gallup on the poll, says it can use the results of the poll to create a "comprehensive, highly configurable Well-Being Improvement Solution" for communities. So there's that. 

I'm not here to sell a product. I just wanted to see the numbers. 

The most recent data in the index looks strictly at financial well-being. In that measure, Michigan ranks 38th overall among states. That's not great. But I guess it could be worse. I look at a lot of these economic ranking measures, and Michigan always seems to be in this range: below average, but not the worst. Whatever that's worth. 

Here's the thing, though. Michigan's economy is supposed to be improving. Last year, the state added 70,000 jobs. We're up 300,000 jobs since 2008. All that, and people still say they're not feeling financially secure? 

And if you look beyond finances, the poll results for Michigan look even worse. Michigan's rank for overall well-being has been dropping in recent years. We're now in the bottom 10, 42nd overall. 

Credit Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index

Michigan ranks especially low in the category labeled "Purpose." With so many more jobs, how can that be?

"For all the jobs Michigan has added since the recession, we still have 200,000 fewer jobs than we did a decade ago."

One reason, it turns out, is that Michigan isn't actually getting worse on these measures. Other states are just getting better at a faster rate. That means we've dropped in the rankings. 

But it's also, I think, that we're still in recovery mode, financially speaking. For all the jobs Michigan has added since the recession, we still have 200,000 fewer jobs than we did a decade ago. And we have a lot more people living in poverty. Even as the state population dropped from 2005 to 2014, the number of people living in poverty has increased, a lot. The census estimates about 260,000 more people in Michigan lived below the poverty line in 2014, compared to 2005. Sure, it's better than it was a few years ago. But longer term, it's not great. 

Maybe that's why, when Gallup calls on the phone, many people in Michigan say they're worse off than people in other states. 


Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.