Mainers earn the least in the Northeast

Posted Dec. 16, 2010, at 9:48 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Mainers continue to earn significantly less than their New England neighbors and face child poverty rates that are among the highest in the Northeast, according to figures released this week by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The median household income in Maine was $46,541 during the latter half of the decade. That is roughly $4,700 less than Vermonters, who ranked just above Maine among New England states, and $21,180 less than the region’s highest earners, those living in Connecticut.

Those figures are just one example of the slew of new data available on states, counties and even small towns across the country through the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, conducted annually over the past five years. The ACS is different than the full census conducted every 10 years.

Poverty and welfare tables also illustrate the disparity between Maine and other states.

Thirteen percent of Maine residents and 16 percent of children were living below the poverty level. The only state in the Northeast with a higher child poverty rate, according to the ACS surveys, was New York while Rhode Island’s and Pennsylvania’s rates were identical to Maine’s.

New Hampshire had the northeastern region’s lowest overall rates, with 9 percent of children and 8 percent of all individuals living below the poverty level for their group.

The ACS surveys also suggest that Mainers are among the most likely in the U.S. to be receiving public assistance.

Maine ranked behind only Alaska in terms of the percent of households that received either general assistance, commonly referred to as welfare, or financial help through the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program during the 12 months before being surveyed.

In Maine, an estimated 24,800 households received assistance out of the roughly 542,600 in the state, equal to about 4.6 percent. In Alaska, 6.3 percent of households received some sort of assistance.

Those figures do not include food stamps or other benefits paid out through Medicare or Medicaid.

But officials at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services cautioned against such comparisons due to dramatic differences in the way welfare programs are administered.

Barb Van Burgel, director of DHHS’ Office of Integrated Access and Support, said nine states don’t even offer “general assistance” and therefore their numbers would be much lower in the ACS survey.

Additionally, the federal government has given states broad flexibility in deciding how to administer TANF funds to best meet the local needs of struggling families. As a result, it is inaccurate to compare states’ TANF programs, Van Burgel said.

Contrary to perceptions that Maine’s welfare programs are too generous, the maximum monthly TANF payment in Maine is lower than in all of the other New England states, Van Burgel said.

The American Community Survey released this week uses data from 2005 to 2009.

Rather than surveying every household in the U.S., as was done for the 2010 census, the ACS is sent to about one in 10 households but asks more specific questions. And because the ACS is done every year, it provides government officials as well as researchers with fresh statistics.

“It’s not as accurate as the decennial census, because it contains a much smaller sample, but it is much more timely,” said Thomas Merrill, who uses census data within the economics and demographics program at the Maine State Planning Office.

The ACS offers hundreds of categories — often down to the municipal level — on everything from income, race and education level to commute time and housing costs.

Other Maine tidbits from the ACS include:

• 89 percent of Mainers over age 25 have a high school diploma but only 26 percent had earned a college degree.

• Natural resource-based industries — such as agriculture, forestry, fishing, hunting and mining — represented only 2 percent of the work force. Those in education, health care and social assistance, meanwhile, made up 26 percent of workers.

• Nearly half of renters spent 30 percent or more of their income on housing.

• Mainers commuted, on average, 22.7 minutes to work.

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