If you were looking for good economic news, you might be satisfied with the report that Maine is not following the national trend of increasing poverty rates.
According to the numbers released this week by the U.S. Census Bureau, one in seven Americans is poor but in Maine the number is one in nine.
That is roughly what it was a year ago, suggesting that Mainers are weathering the recession better than some of their neighbors. But it also means that roughly 140,000 state residents are living below the poverty line, with far-reaching and long-lasting effects throughout our economy.
Maine’s numbers are even more troubling when you break them down by region. While overall 10.5 percent of state residents are living in poverty, which is better than the national average, the comparisons don’t hold up if you get away from the economic powerhouses of Cumberland and York counties.
The poverty rate in Washington County is 20.1 percent, well above the national average and comparable with the state of Mississippi’s 23.1 percent average, which was the nation’s worst. Washington County’s child poverty rate was 28.7 percent, meaning that more than a quarter of the children who live in the state’s easternmost county are poor. And it goes beyond poverty. Median income in Maine lags behind the national average and is last in New England.
We are all too familiar with the reasons for this disparity and it is not just the recent recession that is to blame.
Maine is involved in a long-term transition from a natural resource- and manufacturing-based economy to one that relies more on services. Once stalwart industries such as paper-making or commercial fishing are not providing the jobs they once did, while emerging industries, like tourism and software design, are not growing fast enough to replace them.
The solutions are familiar as well. Most agree that we need to increase the education level of the work force and make the state more attractive to economic development, so that more Mainers can hold good-paying jobs.
But those are long-term solutions, and the census figures show that the problem is here with us now and will be a stubborn one to remove.