Old, White Maine

Posted May 18, 2009, at 6:24 p.m.

Imagine a new store at the mall that angles to get those oh-so-desirable teen and preteen shopping dollars by hanging out a sign that reads, “Whitest and Oldest.” That marketing strategy would scare away customers as quickly as a sign that reads, “Mom wants you to buy the clothes sold here.” In a way, the census data released recently that shows Maine is the “whitest and oldest” state in the nation is like hanging a sign at our border that reads, “Don’t expect much economic vitality here.”

Maine is attractive to retirees because its real estate is a relative value, compared to southern New England and the New York-New Jersey area, and because it has low crime rates. Its recreational opportunities and small-town vibe also are attractive to older folks.

Maine is “whiter” than nearby Massachusetts in large part because of its rural nature; it is difficult for emerging minority groups, such as Hispanics, to land in a small town and find work and affordable housing. Maine’s job market is not as diverse and fluid as that of Greater Boston, and more seasonal, which also makes it difficult for working class folks to make the leap.

But regardless of the reasons, Maine’s old and white status is bad news for its economy.

The age problem affects the state on several fronts. Maine’s median age is 42, compared to 38.6 nationwide. In 2000, the median age was 38.6, so the problem is worsening. People over 40 generally are not starting families, which means they are not consuming as many goods and services as those who are raising children. Maine has 1.3 million people, but because they are scattered across a geographic area nearly equal to the rest of New England, economies of scale are difficult to achieve.

While older residents who move here require fewer services, and often spend money fixing up old houses or building new ones, they are not inclined to start new businesses or work in professional capacities.

“Whitest” is a problem for Maine because ethnic diversity makes for cultural richness, which contributes to quality of life. But it also has economic ramifications.

Minorities are not static elements in a region’s economy. When they move into an area they aspire to earn more and climb the class ladder. They also work to provide a better life for their children, and insist that their offspring attain more education. Like the Irish in Boston and New York 100 years ago, new groups initially provide labor for lower skill jobs. Then the Irish, for example, became police officers and firefighters, shopkeepers and trades people before entering the professional realm.

Although it may sound like a far-fetched idea, Maine could recruit immigrants. Iceland, for example, devastated by the recent financial crisis, might be a place to start looking. Icelanders are acclimated to cold climates, and might find coastal Washington County similar to their homeland. Maine has welcomed such groups before, as evidenced by towns named New Sweden, Poland Spring and Denmark. New Iceland, anyone?

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