Part four in a five-part series

The Great Recession may be over but many Mainers are still living on the edge, with only a third feeling financially secure and almost half saying they would find it difficult to cover an unexpected $1,000 bill.

A new poll from the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, found Maine residents feeling less certain of their personal finances than the rest of the country, where two out of three people rated their own finances as good in a national Associated Press poll in April.

On the other hand, a higher percentage of Mainers feel better prepared to cover an emergency expense than the two-thirds of Americans who told the AP-NORC Center that they would find it difficult to do so.

Frank Durgin, a 35-year-old landscaper and father of three from Sanford, thinks Mainers are simply thriftier than most. He just dipped into his emergency savings to buy a new stove when the old one broke and the cost of buying a new one was less than the cost of the estimated repairs.

But he already has begun replenishing his set-aside fund, cutting back a bit on his $40 a week spending money until he is ready for the next emergency. It is a quality that he learned as a boy, Durgin said.

“I was raised by my Nana, and she grew up in the Great Depression, cutting the bad part of the meat away and keeping the rest and all that,” said Durgin, who plows snow in the winter. “My girlfriend, she cuts coupons, buys clothes for the kids at the end of the season. It seems to me that’s the only way people can make ends meet here in Maine now, is by being thriftier than most. It’s not because things are good, but because we can ride out the bad.”

Like one out of every three Maine residents, Durgin believes that jobs and the economy is the most important problem facing Maine, but economists say it’s difficult to recall a time when the economy wasn’t at the top of such a poll. Charles Colgan, the former longtime University of Southern Maine economist, believes the decline from the 50 percent of Mainers who identified the economy as the top issue in 2014, and the low number of Mainers feeling stuck in their current financial situation, is more optimistic than in the past, and possibly inconsistent with current economic indicators.

“The negatives are lower than I would expect, and the positives are higher than I would have expected,” Colgan said. “People are starting to feel the economic situation is not as bad as it used to be, but I’m not sure they’d say it is doing good. More importantly, given what we know about national retirement savings rates and how inadequate they are, I’m not sure if this is a case of people thinking they’re doing better than they really are. Are they really secure in their finances? Could they really pay that bill?”

HIGH SATISFACTION IN NORTHERN MAINE

Of particular note, only 26 percent of people who live in northern Maine said they feel stuck, and 69 percent of northern Mainers felt they have opportunities for improvements, giving them the highest satisfaction rates of all regions polled in the survey. That contrasts with commonly held perceptions that posit that southern Maine is the land of economic opportunity, and that those living in the north face a gloomier economic future.

“How do you feel about your current financial situation?”

Economists like Charles Lawton at Planning Decisions Inc., a former professor at the University of Maine-Farmington, say census data suggest that may be because many of those who were living in northern Maine and feeling insecure about their finances already have moved to southern Maine, leaving those who feel financially stable and upbeat about the future behind in the north. Other economists say it is too early to tell, and that they will have to wait for data to confirm that theory. It could be that northern Mainers feel they have developed their own economy, or that they can rely on each other or the underground economy more than on Augusta or Washington, D.C., they say.

Economists cautioned against drawing broad conclusions from the poll data. For example, they noted that poll respondents tended to be wealthier than the average Maine resident, according to census data, which might artificially inflate the number of respondents who say they could handle a $1,000 expense with no difficulty at all. Even with that income skew, however, economists said Mainers appeared to be more prepared than their counterparts for such an expense, and that might simply reflect a Calvinist streak. They also noted that more than a quarter of those surveyed would not reveal their income level.

Fifty-one percent of those surveyed said it would not be difficult for them to cover an unexpected $1,000 expense. A nationwide Associated Press poll conducted in June found that two-thirds of Americans said they would find paying a bill like that difficult, and a Bankrate poll conducted this week found that only 28 percent of Americans have emergency savings. Those Mainers polled who would struggle the most with such a bill have lower education levels and reported lower annual household incomes. Republicans, retirees and older respondents were more likely to have no difficulty at all with such a bill.

A WELL-PREPARED RETIREE

Richard Hennessy doesn’t fear an unexpected $1,000 bill. The 70-year-old retiree fits the poll profile – an older, retired man with an advanced degree who is most likely to feel financially secure. He moved to York about 16 years ago, buying a home in the same town where his family used to spend summers.

“How difficult would it be to pay an unexpected expense of $1,000?”

Hennessy said he had reached the point in his career as an information technology consultant for a large multinational company that he could work from anywhere, so he might as well do it from Maine. But he worries about the graying of his town and the state, and has talked to his adult daughter about whether she should leave Maine for better opportunities elsewhere.

“We are a wonderful tourist destination, people come and spend lots of money, and some people, like me, decide to stay, but that’s not the way to build a strong and healthy state,” he said. “We need to attract creative young people to stay and really develop their lives here, raise their kids here, and right now, outside of Portland, that’s just not happening, and that’s a problem. What will happen when we’re gone?”

WORRIED FOR YOUNGER GENERATION

Clair Rowe, a 72-year-old former nurse, has an emergency account and retirement savings that have left her among the 35 percent of Mainers who feel financially secure, but she worries for her children, grandchildren and her community. She remembers when she hit her 30s and realized that her college English degree wasn’t going to be enough to support her young children, prompting her to go back to school to earn a nursing degree. It wasn’t easy to hold down a part-time job, go to night classes and raise her children, but it has paid off for her in the long run and helped make her financially comfortable now.

“I’m glad I’m not young and coming out in the world now,” Rowe said. “I worry that young people nowadays don’t have the same opportunities to improve their situation that I did. I have grandchildren graduating from college and I have friends with grandchildren and I see how difficult it is for them to even afford an apartment. They can’t be independent. They continue to be children long into their mid-20s, not because they want to, but because they are trapped by the economy, by low-paying jobs and high student loans. They can’t get ahead even when they try.”

The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram Poll was conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center on June 15-21, 2016. Results are based on landline and cellular telephone interviews with 609 randomly selected Maine adults and 475 randomly selected likely Maine voters. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points for all adults and plus or minus 4.5 percentage points for likely voters.