Tuesday, June 18, 2013
By RALPH C. CARMONA
PORTLAND - Maine faces a demographic dilemma. At the epicenter are urban cities, Portland being the largest, that drive the Maine economy.
Here's the dilemma: How will Maine democratically respond to a national tsunami of diverse change? Will our next U.S. senator make this Catch-22 a major priority?
People overlook the fact that the global and American economies are driven by urban centers. Cities are the universal way toward public access, diverse integration, innovation and human progress. With the urbanization of India and China, the Earth's population will become an urban species. It explains why Portland, per capita, is viewed as a driving economic state engine comparable to New York and San Francisco.
Public leaders are quick to spin words about how Portland is "cool" and "diverse-ish." They see geographically diverse pools of future college-educated human capital that will make for a creative economy. Religious organizations are openly compassionate in word and deed about the diaspora of African refugees and undocumented Latino immigrants trapped in a structurally flawed immigration world. Using the words of immigrants seeking asylum and refuge, public commentators impress us with Portland and Maine as havens of social acceptance.
Yet beneath that positive public discourse is a passive public unease that sees Portland's future through public schools with a 38 percent immigrant student population. Anecdotes are widespread about African drug lords and non-European immigrants' destruction of "the way Portland should be" with their "other" presence and public-assistance dependence. Portland's police chief and mayor are quick to factually downplay such concerns. But the power of fear is not rooted in facts and is a reality.
The Maine Global Institute sees its mission as an endeavor to work with public, civic and business leaders to help the Pine Tree State address the true complexities of this demographic change in an accountable and creative fashion. This requires that we root out false fears and unavoidable flaws of public policies and programs.
Mobility is not just about young professionals or impoverished immigrants. Portland is high on the retirement list for non-Maine professional baby boomers. These affluent and highly educated immigrants admire the state's beauty and Portland's cosmopolitan strengths. Many see in Maine a new life opportunity for a hopeful American future. Like those coming from away, rural Mainers are migrating to urban regions because there is access to social infrastructures, postsecondary education and employment opportunities.
Demographic change also affects rural Maine. With the expansion of cheaper and more affordable organic farming comes less need for migratory employment. Muskie School of Public Services Executive Director Mark Lapping, for example, emphasizes that low-cost quality food is possible with Maine rural processing centers. Such centers expand both sustainable farming and employment for a diminishing predominantly Latino work force. It also provides needed consumer demand for Maine economic growth.
For urban Maine to attract educated immigrants will require niches of affordable housing, college debt relief and assistance that positions them to broaden Maine's creative economic assets: the arts, tourism, recreation, restaurants, technology and urban density. Portland epitomizes the growing national desire for walkable and safe urban -- not suburban -- places for young and old alike.
Integrating this changing demography requires understanding its presence and inevitability. For Maine, all levels of government must grapple with more human mobility through equal opportunities and skills.
Without human capital, Maine faces an economic death spiral. As with America, Maine's democratic greatness comes in public conversations over critical junctures involving national demographic change. This is why the Maine Global Institute will organize opportunities for U.S. Senate candidates to focus on federal issues affecting Maine's human capital, skilled and unskilled, and human rights involving public access and opportunity.
Maine's new U.S. senator needs to avoid the worst elements of local and state tribalism aimed at the demographic change sweeping this nation. He or she must address needed federal policies and issues at the crossroads of America's changing diversity. A good beginning comes with acknowledging that without last year's primarily African migration, Maine would have been dead last in terms of population growth among this nation's states. How should our new U.S. senator deal with legislation affecting that issue?
Answers to questions like that could pave the way for a U.S. senator to make Maine a better place for the way life should be with a leadership that ends its status as the most elderly and least diverse state.
Ralph C. Carmona is the executive director of the Maine Global Institute.