AUGUSTA, Maine — Compared with other Americans, Mainers envision a bleak future for their state. Yet, others give Maine high marks as an idyllic place to live.
Are we a bunch of grumps living in what others consider paradise?
In Gallup polling based on more than 530,000 interviews conducted between Jan. 2, 2011, and June 30 of this year, Maine registered the highest percentage of residents who believe that their standard of living will worsen during the next five years. Conversely, people who live in Hawaii have the brightest outlook on where they’ll be five years from now. Maybe it’s the weather.
Overall, Maine ranks 40th in the survey of livability. Utah tops the list. West Virginia occupies the bottom spot.
Mainers’ seemingly gloomy perspective on the future, as reflected by the Gallup findings, conflicts with recently released studies done by out-of-state entities. CNBC places Maine fourth from the top on its list of America’s Best States to Live in 2012. Kiplinger Personal Finance magazine rates Portland as the nation’s top city for empty nesters, and Parenting Magazine slots Portland at No. 3 in the nation for families and education. Smithsonian magazine this spring included Brunswick on its list of the 20 best small towns in America.
Friday’s release of the Gallup Economic Confidence Index, a composite of Americans’ ratings of current U.S. economic conditions and their perceptions of the economy’s direction for the first half of 2012, further complicates interpretation of the “standard of living momentum” results. It shows Maine’s confidence level rising 21 points from 2011 on a 100-point scale, the third highest jump in the nation. However, the index indicates that residents of all 50 states maintain a negative attitude toward the economy, and Gallup still classifies Maine’s economic confidence as below average.
Maine’s unemployment rate has been below the national average since 2008. Yet Mainers who responded to the Gallup poll questions look leerily ahead at the next five years, at least in comparison to how residents of other states view the near future.
Given the positive outlook from beyond our borders, does the Gallup result mean Mainers are just grumpy pessimists?
No, according to an array of Mainers surveyed in a far more informal fashion than the system Gallup uses.
Recent referendum patterns prove that Mainers aren’t pessimists, according to comedian Bob Marley.
“Every fall there’s a referendum to build a casino,” Marley joked Thursday while on his way to perform in Rhode Island. “Someone in Maine is optimistic enough to think they’re going to win.”
Marley describes Maine people as “survivors” and “stoics.” Noting that he has been in almost all 50 states and 15 countries, Marley said, “Maine people are really good at sucking it up. If you’re not from here, you’d say we’re kinda grumpy. It’s the Maine attitude.”
Thomas College President Laurie Lachance, who formerly headed the Maine Development Foundation and served as a state economist, echoed Marley’s sentiment that Mainers’ penchant for trodding a steady course through life probably tempered poll responses.
People in Maine “tend to be very humble,” Lachance said. “We downplay when good things go on.”
But it’s not all attitude. A stubbornly sluggish economy takes its toll on Maine’s group psyche, according to economists and workforce specialists.
“Growth has been so slow for the state’s biggest businesses and traditional industries,” Lachance said. ”When you see layoffs where they never were before, you tend to be negative.”
When those layoffs morph into long-term unemployment, the workers who lose their jobs and can’t find new ones “go through stages of grief and end up in a real bad funk of discouragement,” said Michael Bourret, executive director of Coastal Counties Workforce Inc., which offers retraining and support services in six counties, with a focus on workers displaced by the closure of Brunswick Naval Air Station in 2011.
Earlier this year, University of Southern Maine economics professor Charles Colgan cited the base closure as a key reason for the decline in Maine’s gross domestic product in 2011. That might contribute to Mainers’ angst, Bourret said, but “the discouragement we’re seeing here is tied to long-term unemployment across the country.”
If that’s the case, why do Mainers see more gloom on the horizon than people in states with higher unemployment rates?
Scott Moody, chief executive officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, believes it’s because Mainers are realists. Moody characterized the Gallup results as an indication that Mainers have begun to recognize that the state is on the cusp of a “demographic winter,” in which the state has “too few young people to support our current population.”
He said the population shift is leading to more communities in which the number of people older than 65 outnumbers those younger than 18.
“It’s having a major psychological impact,” Moody said.
Maine’s aging population also factors into residents’ outlook on the future.
“If you’re an older worker and don’t feel you could plug back into the economy … it’s harder,” Lachance said.
Young adults trying to make their way into the workforce encounter different frustrations, according to Elizabeth Lardie, a 20-something Bath native who splits her time between Maine and New York City in pursuit of an acting career.
“I feel like my generation is pessimistic in both states, perhaps equally but for different reasons,” Lardie said. “In Maine, it feels like jobs are particularly limited. I know people who graduated at the top of their class in both high school and college who are currently working as summer camp counselors.”
Unlike previous generations, which were able to parlay college into well-paying professions, college graduates encounter more uncertainty today.
“Education gives tremendous hope to people,” Lachance said. “With cost of education going up and incomes not, it makes education more of a stretch for people. That could be burdening people’s spirits.”
“Even though there is frustration,” Lardie said, “I feel like most of my friends in Maine are here by choice, content with the trade-off of taking a job that might not be the most strategic career move ever for a more down-to-earth lifestyle and lower cost of living.”
Comparatively, “I sense a little more discontentment and pessimism” in New York, Lardie said, noting that a more highly charged competitive atmosphere forces frequent job changes, which often represent “more of a change of scenery than progress.”
Brunswick resident Charlotte Agell, a middle school educator and children’s author, sees little pessimism among school-age Mainers.
“Students are optimistic by nature,” she said. “I think they have every reason to be, about both Maine and their own futures.”
Her travel experiences reinforce the notion that people who live elsewhere look longingly at life in the Pine Tree State. “Any time I’m traveling … and meet someone and they find out that I live in Maine, they say, ‘You’re so lucky,’” said Agell, who was born in Sweden and spent parts of her childhood in Canada and Hong Kong.
It may just be a matter of perspective. In comparison to longtime Mainers, “People who move here see tremendous opportunity and hope,” Lachance said.
“Mainers are cautious and humble,” said Nancy Smith, executive director of GrowSmart Maine, a Portland-based organization that plans to release an update of its 2006 “Charting Maine’s Future” report this fall. “We simply don’t tout our own successes; that would be rude. We don’t want to offend others or appear to be bragging. There’s also a bit of not wanting to jinx our good fortune.”