September 19, 2013

Census shows Mainers hurting economically

Maine's median household income barely rose in five years and growing numbers of children live in poverty.

By Kelley Bouchard
Staff Writer

Maine's population is older and slightly more racially diverse than it was five years ago, but Mainers are still struggling financially and more likely to be living in poverty, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics released Thursday.

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The median household income in Maine has increased negligibly, from $46,581 in 2008 to $46,709 in 2012, based on the latest American Community Survey of 3 million households nationally.

Meanwhile, the proportion of Mainers living in poverty continued to grow steadily, from 12.3 percent in 2008 to 14.7 percent in 2012, the survey found. The state has 1.3 million people.

The proportion of children under age 18 who are living in poverty increased from 15.8 percent in 2008 to 20.9 percent in 2012, while those under age 5 increased from 19.9 percent to 26.9 percent during the same period.

"That figure is shocking," said Joel Johnson, an economist at the Maine Center for Economic Policy. "That means more than one in four young children in Maine are living in poverty."

Poverty-level income for a family of four in 2012 was $23,492, according to the Census.

The overall poverty figures published Thursday differ from numbers published on Tuesday in the Portland Press Herald and other media. Those were based on a separate set of data from the latest Current Population Survey, or CPS, released by the Census earlier this week.

The CPS samples only 100,000 households nationally -- about 900 Mainers -- each March and is considered less accurate than the more comprehensive American Community Survey released Thursday.

The two surveys appear to paint a slightly different picture of poverty trends in Maine, although both indicate the percentage of Mainers living in poverty remained about the same in 2012 as the year before.

The CPS found that the percentage of Mainers living in poverty was 12.8 percent in 2012, down from 13.4 percent in 2011 -- a year-over-year difference that is not considered statistically significant.

The American Community Survey results indicate the state's poverty level rose from 14.1 percent in 2011 to 14.7 percent in 2012. That difference also is within the margin of error of the survey.

Johnson and other economic experts say long-term income analyses show that families in Maine and across the nation continue to struggle financially five years after the collapse of financial markets triggered a recession. The U.S. median household income fell from $52,029 in 2008 to $51,371 in 2012, according to the American Community Survey.

"The median household income hasn't grown in 30 years, while the national economy has more than doubled during that time," said Charles Colgan, an economist at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine.

Despite having a median income below the national average, the poverty rate in Maine -- 14.7 percent -- is lower than the national proportion of 15.9 percent. Moreover, the proportion of Mainers going without health insurance -- 10.2 percent -- also falls below the national number --14.8 percent, according to the new data.

Other indicators of family finances include food subsidies, home ownership and heating sources.

The proportion of Maine households receiving federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or food stamps, is up from 13.8 percent in 2008 to 17.8 percent in 2012, according to the American Community Survey.

The percentage of owner-occupied households in Maine decreased from 72.1 percent to 71.4 percent in the last five years, while renter-occupied households increased from 27.9 percent to 28.6 percent.

To help make ends meet, some Mainers changed how they heated their homes.

The proportion of Maine households that used a petroleum-based fuel dropped from 75.1 percent to 67.5 percent in the five-year period. Meanwhile, utility gas users increased from 3.6 percent to 5.2 percent, bottled gas users increased from 6.2 percent to 7.5 percent and wood burners increased from 9.4 percent to 13.7 percent.

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