Located in Michigan’s “thumb” region, Sanilac County, with its fertile soil and proximity to Detroit’s auto industry, once offered residents a ticket to the middle class.
By the mid-1970s, however, profound environmental and economic events began to take hold in the region, influencing the future of Sanilac County and its residents. A 1973 incident in which mislabeled chemicals were accidentally sold as livestock feed and entered the food chain was described as one of the worst chemical disasters in U.S. history; it resulted in the quarantine of 500 Michigan farms and slaughter of thousands of livestock. In the late 1970s, the changing automotive industry began setting up assembly plants outside of Michigan, taking suppliers—and parts manufacturing jobs—with them. Even before the Great Recession, Michigan had already lost 211,000 jobs in the first years of the new millennium. The county continues to struggle from the permanent loss of auto parts manufacturing jobs that once supported Detroit’s automotive industry.
Today, farming remains vital to Sanilac County’s economy, with agriculture driving an increase in employment over the last 15 years. While the county’s population has declined, and health outcomes for adults are troubling, residents have higher rates of basic educational attainment compared with the state, and efforts to rebuild the county’s economy are ongoing.