Maine’s population woes

Posted Dec. 28, 2008, at 6:33 p.m.

Maine’s stagnant population growth, reported annually in December, does not spur the formation of task forces, blue ribbon panels or study groups. But it should.

Steady population growth is a key component of a healthy economy. There is some argument among demographers and economists about whether a growing economy brings population growth or the other way around, but one thing is certain: Declining or stagnant population is a bad sign for a state.

A state such as Maine, geographically isolated from its neighbors, should pay special attention to population statistics. States such as New Jersey or Indiana, for example, are different because they are adjacent to population centers. Maine’s northern, central and eastern regions are especially re-moved from population centers.

The U.S. Census Bureau, which considered the period from July 2007 to July of this year, put Maine’s population at 1,316,456, an increase of 1,058, or 0.1 percent. Maine, which is 40th in the nation in population, is in bad company among the New England states, which also are seeing little population growth. Rhode Island lost 0.2 percent of its population, while Maine tied with Vermont for the lowest population gain in the region. New Hampshire and Connecticut grew by 0.3 percent.

Massachusetts led the way with just 0.5 percent growth, and the Boston Globe reports much of that may be due to a new method of counting that includes college students.

Utah, at 2.5 percent was the fastest growing state by percentage, followed by Arizona, Texas, North Carolina and Colorado.

Part of the population contraction can be explained sociologically. People marry and start families later, and have fewer children than their parents and grandparents.

But the biggest influence on population distribution in the United States is something over which no one has any control — the weather. For 25 years, the nation’s population has been shifting to the Southeast and Southwest. Baby boomers who are hitting retirement age are swelling the numbers heading for the Sun Belt, but so are younger entrepreneurs and the work force. Spiking energy prices in recent years give businesses even more reason to consider warmer climates.

“We know the challenges of any Northeastern location,” William F. Glavin, secretary of the commonwealth in Massachusetts, told the Globe. “It’s a challenge because of the high cost of living, because of the climate, and because of the economic uncertainty. I don’t think it’s a matter of changing policy. You can’t change the weather or the cost of living. That’s the hand we’re dealt.”

One policy change that might be considered in light of these trends is the national immigration stance. Could immigration be encouraged if newcomers are required to live for a time in states with declining populations? A system like Canada’s, which favors would-be immigrants based on age and levels of education — the younger and better educated have a better chance of getting in — might be tailored to favor states like Maine. If not immigration, then Maine might consider strategies that island communities have used, offering incentives for young families to relocate. Short of that, global warming may be the next best hope.

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