February 23, 2020
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Maine’s population decline isn’t going to reverse itself

Pacific Northwest Regional Economic Analysis Project | BDN
Pacific Northwest Regional Economic Analysis Project | BDN
This chart displays the short-run pattern of Maine's population growth by tracking the year-to-year percent change over 1970-2012. The average annual percent change for the entire 43-year period is also traced on this chart to provide a benchmark for gauging periods of relative high -- and relative low -- growth against the backdrop of the long-term average. Source of data: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Sometimes the biggest threats are the hardest to see. They develop slowly, perhaps nearly imperceptibly, like a tree root gradually displacing a sidewalk. One day, you realize the place where you live is permanently transformed unless someone fixes it. It’s not a surprise but a greater awareness.

The fact that Maine’s population growth rate has slowed to stagnation is not a surprise. The question is whether Maine lawmakers and others are fully aware of the implications, to the point where they will commit to fixing the problem.

With some spikes here and there, Maine’s population has been growing slower for decades, and it’s now hitting some unfortunate milestones. Maine now has more deaths than births. It has the oldest median age in the country at 43.5 years. It has a declining number of workers.

And it lost population between 2012 and 2013, according to estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau at the end of December. In July 2010, the census estimated Maine’s population was 1,327,366. Over the next two years, it grew slightly, to 1,328,501 in July 2012. Then, the following year in July 2013, it pegged the population at 1,328,302, a decline of 199 people and within the margin of error.

No one pretends that some of the solutions — to draw more residents, keep residents here, grow the number of racial and ethnic minorities, increase workforce participation among the state’s existing population, and boost entrepreneurial support — will be easy. The state’s political culture and structure are not conducive to developing and sticking with plans that must last longer than a generation or even a two-year election cycle. Efforts that don’t originate in Augusta are promising, but they will need wider support.

Maine foresters plan out their harvests decades in advance. And Maine parents may save up for their child’s education before he or she is born. The state’s population, and therefore its economy, must receive the same type of long-range attention. There are model population growth strategies — such as one pursued in New Brunswick — to learn from. And various groups in Maine have devoted time and energy to the problem over the years.

But until there is both a grassroots push and state leadership on the issue — including the governor and the Legislature collaborating with businesses and educational institutions — it will be difficult to create momentum and realistic solutions. Stabilizing and improving the state’s population growth rate have already been put off too long. Unless wide-ranging responses are developed soon, it’s clear the underlying forces driving population decline will only continue to create fissures across the state.

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