Maine: Too Old, Too White, or Just Right?
In a pair of thought-provoking articles this week, Tux Turkel of the Portland Press Herald looked at how New Brunswick — our neighbor and near-twin to the east — is responding to the slow-burn demographic crisis of an aging workforce and shrinking tax base. I'll cut to the quick of it: Immigration.
The province's push to attract younger workers and their families from overseas goes back to 2006, when newly elected Premier Shawn Graham developed a population-growth strategy called Be Our Future. This ongoing effort, funded to the tune of $5 million a year, seeks not only to entice new immigrants to the province but to encourage former residents to move back home.
The program, which helps newcomers improve their language skills and receive needed training, appears to be working. New Brunswick has steadily gained population for the past thirteen calendar quarters. Employment since 2007 has grown by 10,500 — a pretty impressive figure given the overall state of the economy.
How does Maine stack up by comparison? According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, our workforce has contracted slightly, from about 703,000 at the start of 2007 to 698,000 as of this June. And though the census results aren't yet in, Maine is thought to be one of only three states (along with Rhode Island and Michigan) that lost population in 2009.
These disparities, though not exactly sharp, are significant, I think, because we are like New Brunswick in many ways — physically, economically, and demographically. We are, as Turkel curtly notes, "the oldest and whitest state in the United States," with a median age of forty-four and a population that is 96 percent white. Every year we lose thousands of young people who move elsewhere in search of broader economic and cultural opportunities. A strategy like that of New Brunswick would seem to make just as much sense here as there. But does anyone seriously think that such a thing is in the cards? I, for one, cannot imagine it.
Last month, a Rasmussen poll of likely Maine voters posed the following question: "Suppose the new Arizona immigration law was being considered for your state. Would you favor or oppose passage of that law in your state?" 52 percent of respondents said they would favor such a measure, against only 31 percent opposed. We have succumbed, it seems, to the strange national paranoia about outsiders in our midst. Which is a shame indeed, and rather hard to account for, given that much of our economy depends on an annual flood of visitors from away, and that Mainers, taken individually, are friendly and welcoming people.
So we have this odd spectacle: our neighbors to the east, faced with an aging, dwindling, and monochromatic populace much like our own, rolled up their sleeves and matter-of-factly worked out a rational means of addressing the problem. Meanwhile here in Maine, one of our major political parties has embraced the hardline anti-immigrant stance of the Tea Party crowd, with a platform that calls for sealing the border (with Canada, for God's sake), abrogating international treaties, ending Maine's status as a "sanctuary state," and resisting the creation of a "one world government."
This too shall pass, I suppose. With any luck, the steady hemorrhage of jobs and young people will continue at its stately pace rather than turning into a flood. And who knows, maybe as global warming kicks in, our bracing climate will lure the best and the brightest back home.
It's the meanness of our public discourse that disturbs me, more than the raw statistics. Maine is really a wonderful, welcoming place. But you wouldn't know it right now from the tenor of our politics.