EDITORIALS

Congratulations, governor: Maine’s economy is still barely growing, despite employment gains

Maine Gov. Paul LePage talks with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on May 7 at Becky's Diner in Portland.
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Maine Gov. Paul LePage talks with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on May 7 at Becky's Diner in Portland. Buy Photo
Posted June 19, 2014, at 2:32 p.m.

On Wednesday, Gov. Paul LePage’s office appeared to take credit for the slight increase in employment in Maine since he took office in 2011.

“The New York Times has affirmed the efforts we have made to recover jobs lost during the great recession,” LePage said in a press release. “The unemployment rate for April was 5.7 percent, which was the lowest since September 2008, and thousands more Mainers are working in the private sector now than when I took office.”

It’s awfully hard for one governor to be solely responsible for the complex factors contributing to economic growth. The news is also hardly something to cheer.

In Maine, the number of employed residents — and the percentage of the population with a job — still hasn’t improved past pre-recession levels.

At the start of the recession, in December 2007, seasonally adjusted employment in Maine reached 620,700. Six years later, the state hasn’t regained all its job losses. Total employment in December 2013 was 604,100, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. In April, it was 605,100. (The recession technically ended in June 2009.)

Some will argue Maine probably won’t get all those jobs back, especially since its population is flatlining and more people are retiring, but that doesn’t make the economic situation better.

In his self-congratulatory news release, LePage quotes a portion of the Times story that says only three states, including Maine, have “retraced more than half their loss” in regards to the percentage of the population with work.

Perhaps LePage expected no one to read the next few lines in the article: “Maine is a curiosity. Its economy has expanded less since 2009 than any state’s except Connecticut. Conversely, North Dakota and South Dakota, two of the three states with the most growth over the same period, have seen little recovery in their employment rates — perhaps in part because their losses were relatively small.”

Measuring a state’s economic recovery depends on how strong the economy was to begin with. Maine’s recession-induced decline wasn’t as steep as other states’, so it has less ground to recover.

Residents will be unsurprised to know that Maine’s economic engine has been stuck for a long time. In fact, Maine’s economic output hasn’t really changed in 10 years. In 2003, gross domestic product per person was $38,037, when adjusted for inflation. In 2013, it was $38,517, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Economists tie the stagnation to Maine’s lack of population growth. Indeed, the number of younger workers is shrinking. Between 2010 and 2013, the population between age 25 and 54 shrank by 13,000, according to Glenn Mills, chief economist at the Maine Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research and Information. It’s been in decline for awhile.

“We don’t have the workforce growth, based on things that happened over decades, to have fast growth,” Mills said.

Everyone wants to see the unemployment rate come down and the employment rate go up, but it’s hard for a single governor to be owed credit. It’s even harder to claim specific policies have had a tangible effect on jobs. Whole economies don’t change in a few years but many years. How will Maine position itself for population growth and the economic growth that will likely go along with it? Right now it seems silly to celebrate the state’s economic condition.

Apparently, LePage isn’t allowing that reality to get in the way of his attempts to portray Maine’s economy in positive terms for the purposes of his re-election.

 

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