AUGUSTA, Maine — Franco-Americans earn less, have less education and are younger than their non-Franco counterparts in Maine. These are among the findings of a U.S. Census data analysis completed for the state’s new task force on Franco-Americans.
A separate poll of 600 Franco-Americans in Maine shows an increased appreciation for the importance of education, especially among older respondents, and a link between pride in culture and economic success.
The task force, created with bipartisan support in 2011, is scheduled to meet Wednesday at the State House to receive an analysis of 2010 census data from University of Southern Maine professor James Myall and preliminary results from an August 2012 poll of 600 Mainers who identify themselves as Franco-American, Maine’s largest ethnic population. Tony Brinkley of the University of Maine’s Franco-American Centre and Bowdoin College professor Christian Potholm, who conducted the survey, will present the poll data.
The two studies represent the task force’s commitment to a scientific approach to a population whose place in Maine’s historic and cultural evolution has largely been defined by anecdotal evidence.
“The findings from this analysis of the 2010 American Community Survey refute a number of preconceptions and stereotypes that are widely held among the non-Franco community,” wrote Myall, whose analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey responses shows that 24.3 percent of Maine’s residents identify their ancestry or ethnic origin as French or French Canadian.
Myall’s study shows how Franco-American residents help define Maine’s culture rather than stand out from it. He reports that although the median age of Mainers who identify themselves as Franco-American (39.1) was lower than the median state age (42.7) in 2010, the average size of a Franco family (2.91 people) mirrors the state average (2.90).
More than 98 percent of Mainers classified as Franco-American were born in the United States, and “the French language is no longer central to Franco identity,” he wrote.
While Myall’s analysis gauges the place of Franco-Americans within Maine society as a whole, the poll focuses specifically on the attitudes of Mainers who identify themselves as Franco-American.
On Tuesday, Brinkley joined Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, House chairman and sponsor of the legislation that created the task force, and Severin Beliveau, a member of the task force, to discuss the poll results and how they could factor into recommendations the task force will present to the full Legislature.
Demonstrating that a shared Franco heritage reaches across the political aisle, Beliveau, an influential Democrat, praised Fredette as the driving force behind an “unprecedented effort to quantify and understand the valued contributions of a particular ethnic group.”
“We needed to take a scientific approach to what’s going on in the Franco community,” Fredette said. “We needed data that is timely, important and relevant so we could measure our value to the state” and use it as the basis for future policy discussions.
Brinkley emphasized that the poll, which has a margin of error of 3 percent, represents a “point of departure” that can be used to determine trends within the Franco-American population, other ethnic groups in Maine and the state as a whole.
Among the trends that stood out most dramatically to Brinkley, Fredette and Beliveau were changing Franco-American attitudes toward education and the economy.
Of the 600 poll respondents, 19 percent said they were unemployed. Sixty percent of those who identified themselves as unemployed were between 18 and 25 years old. Conversely, less than 4 percent of respondents between 46 and 60 years old identified themselves as unemployed.
Based on his preliminary analysis of that information, Brinkley said it would be reasonable to conclude that most Franco-Americans between 18 and 25 years old are “uncertain about their identity, employment and education.”
Stark employment prospects appear to lead more Franco-Americans between 18 and 25 years old to question the value of education, based on responses to another poll question. When asked about the value of a college education, 13 percent of respondents between 18 and 25 called it important. That compares to 60 percent of all respondents who labeled higher education important, versus 6 percent who said it was unimportant and 33 percent who were unsure.
Of the 33 percent who expressed doubts about the value of a college education, 82 percent of the group between 18 and 25 did so.
“The poll challenges state institutions to fully meet the needs of people coming of age in Maine,” Brinkley said.
Beliveau, Brinkley and Fredette all speculated that the poll results for young Franco-Americans in Maine were more indicative of the difficulties their age group faces than of any trend related to being Franco-American.
One clear trend the poll shows is how having one family member attend college spurs others in the family to increase the value they place on higher education. “Among those whose parents attended college, 97 percent believe it is important for their children,” a summary of the poll results states.
“If one Franco-American goes to college, it becomes more and more important for everyone in the family to go to college,” Brinkley said, suggesting that Mainers of Franco-American descent represent an untapped talent pool for the state’s university system as it becomes harder to recruit students in a state with a consistently low birth rate.
For that reason, increasing the emphasis on programs that honor Maine’s Franco-American heritage and culture could benefit the university system and the state as a whole, Brinkley said.
The poll results suggest a rough correlation between cultural pride and success, Brinkley said. With traditional institutions — such as the church, workplace and family — that passed along cultural knowledge from generation to generation losing influence, integrating studies of Franco-American and other Maine-based cultures into university and public school curriculums could fill the gap.
That, in turn, would benefit Maine because “having a strong sense of who you are and where you come from means you’re more likely to be successful,” Brinkley said.
Among the recommendations Fredette plans to suggest is creation of a statewide Franco-American leadership council. He also said insights gained from studying the poll will be the basis for task force recommendations that must be “bold” and be applicable beyond the Franco-American population.
Also at Wednesday’s task force meeting, Daniel Deveau will be sworn in as the state’s new Maine-Canadian Trade Ombudsman.