Here’s a question for anyone running for governor (but the rest of you can play along at home).

What is your plan for producing more babies?

In addition to the budget crisis and the jobs deficit and an over-dependence on foreign oil, we in Maine are facing a potential demographic disaster that threatens our quality of life.

Simply put, we are not growing. Maine’s population is virtually flat and is projected to begin declining within the next two decades. Those of us who are here now are growing — older that is — and every year more of us move into retirement age.

That means fewer people in the work force to pay taxes and more people in need of government services. That means bigger budget battles in Augusta and smaller economic development successes.

Clearly, anyone who wants to be governor for most of the next decade should have a plan to help us grow our own young people, or failing that, import other people’s young.

The problem is laid out in a report issued by the State Planning Office in March. It tracks historical population trends and projects them to 2028. What the demographers found is a state at the crossroads.

Maine’s population is expected to stop growing and begin to decline in 2018. Six counties are expected to start shrinking as soon as 2013. Even Cumberland and York counties are expected to stop growing before 2028.

The biggest age group in the Maine population is the baby boomers who dominate our political and cultural landscape. In 2013, they will be between 49 and 67 years old. People in late middle age can do a lot of things, but starting families is generally not on the list.

Maine’s racial mix is also an issue. According to the study, non-Hispanic white people have lower birth rates than ethnic minorities, and as the oldest and whitest state in the union, Maine has a predictably low birth rate.

In 2006, the national average was 14.2 live births per 1,000 people. In Maine, it was only 10.7.

At the start of the last decade, Maine managed to grow anyway, because slightly more people moved here than moved away. But in 2008, that changed and Maine started to experience significant losses.

The stock solution to this predicament is jobs: If we had more good jobs, the argument goes, people would want to move here and we would be able to keep more of our young people from moving away.

But it’s not that easy. Where would these jobs come from?

If you were thinking of moving a manufacturing plant to Maine, where would you get your workers? Where would you expect to get their replacements in 10 years?

If you owned a business in Maine, would you think twice about expanding here if half your work force was in their 50s?

Most of the gubernatorial candidates say the answer is education, sometimes even early childhood education, and they’re right, but it’s hard to see where the political will for that priority will come as the population ages. While the baby boomers’ children are in school, there has been a lot of political muscle behind education funding.

But when the boomers are done multiplying — especially if their children and grandchildren are living elsewhere — education funding will be in conflict with services that older people need. That could make this year’s school budget cuts an annual bloodbath.

Short of putting fertility drugs in the public water supply, Maine needs to find a way to attract new people.

One of them will be learning how to be friendlier to “people from away.” For a state that has made a whole comedy genre out of being unhelpful to tourists, this won’t be easy.

One way to start would be to step up investment in higher education. Students around the world are told that a high school diploma is not going to be enough and they will need to get at least an associates degree to be competitive.

Opening the doors to Maine schools with aggressive recruitment, tuition support and investments in buildings and programs would bring more young people in, and people often end up living where they went to college. Cutting programs in the state university system looks like a shortsighted way to save money.

Another is “quality of place” investments to make the most of what Maine already has. That means cleaning up downtowns to make them more livable and preserving open space in the country. It also means good schools, good roads and transportation alternatives.

The other issues that dominate the gubernatorial race matter too. The state has to grapple with its tax structure, business regulations and the high costs of energy and health care.

No one in their 20s is going to factor the cost of electricity into whether they decide to move to Maine. But they might be drawn to the state by the prospect of living in a downtown loft a few blocks from a place where you could launch a kayak.

As we so often hear around election time, we have a choice. We can spend the next decade making improvements to welcome young people who want to make a life here.

Or we can just wait for the next governor to tell us how our aging population is going to produce more babies.

 

Greg Kesich is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at:

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