The new state government should pay close attention to the data emerging from the 2010 U.S. Census. Though Maine’s population grew by 4.2 percent in the last decade, higher than the estimated rates reported year by year, the low number does not bode well for economic growth. The details that will be reported by the Census Bureau in the coming months must be analyzed before effective economic development policies can be tailored to Maine’s particular population challenges.
The 4.2 percent figure represents a net gain of 53,438 residents since 2000. It was a better rate than most Northeast states, and it was better than the 3.8 percent growth in the previous decade.
But the numbers must be understood with more context. Chief among the questions planners must answer is: Who are these people? Are they retirees from southern New England and mid-Atlantic states? Are they seeking refuge from high real estate prices, busy cities and crime? Are they moving to Maine from nearby states because of the state’s reputation — according to some — for generous social service programs? How many are being born to Maine residents?
If many of Maine’s new residents are retirees who have come from other states or natives returning here after attaining some degree of financial security, this is qualified good news. Retirees generally purchase houses and improve them, or build new homes, which injects money into the local economy. They also tend to get involved in community and civic life. But they don’t start businesses or boost enrollment in schools.
The next layer of data that will inform decisions is the educational attainment of residents, both new and native. Understanding economic development should not spur a chicken-and-egg discussion; an educated work force prompts business growth, not the other way around. Further details will reveal how many Mainers are of child-bearing age and how many students likely will populate our K-12 schools in the coming decade. These statistics must play a prominent role in policy debates at the State House.
Where people are settling in Maine also is critical information. The 2000 census showed precipitous population declines in the state’s central and northern counties while double-digit growth was seen in coastal and southern counties. The emergence of bedroom communities around service centers such as Bangor, Ellsworth, Belfast, Rockland and Newport also was a development seen in the 2000 census. State policy should be directed at ensuring good land use planning if such trends are again seen in these areas.
The state needs population growth, and leaders must identify where it can best be fostered. Vigorous growth is not out of the question, though nationally, the South and the Southwest are seeing the bulk of population increases. From 1970 to 1980, Maine’s population grew by 13.4 percent, and between 1980 and 1990, the state population grew by 9.2 percent.
The census provides a chance for Maine to take a cold, hard look at itself in the mirror. The image will become clearer in the months to come.