Several weeks ago, I commented on the decline, over the course of the recession, in the number of businesses in Maine as measured by establishments filing payroll reports to the Department of Labor.

Several readers wondered if Maine businesses had an above-average dependence on “discretionary” spending, or tourist spending, or nonprofit enterprises. These and other suggestions led me to explore the question a bit deeper.

Much has been made recently about Maine being an old state. “Is a smaller percentage of our population working, or even interested in working?” I wondered.

Is the drop in the number of employers a reflection of the drop in the number of potential employees? Are we just — because we’re all graying boomers — less interested in working?

That turns out not to be the case. Our civilian labor force as a percent of our civilian population is virtually the same as the national average.

In Maine in December 2009, our ratio stood at 65.3 percent compared to the national average of 64.9. This ranked us 27th, right in the middle of all states plus the District of Columbia.

And, more importantly, we did relatively better than the nation as a whole in terms of the decline in labor force participation.

In the U.S. as a whole, the share of the population either employed or looking for work fell by nearly 2 percentage points between 2007 and 2009.

In Maine, the drop was only 1.4 percent, ranking us 20th among the states. In a word, the “discouraged worker” syndrome where people simply give up looking for work and drop out of the labor force seems not to be a major problem in Maine.

What about sole proprietors then? Did Maine fall behind in business formation because struggling businesses laid off everyone but the owner? Or did laid-off workers go into business for themselves and became sole proprietors or partners in LLCs or S corporations that reported no employees?

Was our decline in the number of establishments reporting employees the result of an increase in the number of no-employee enterprises?

That too proved to be a false hypothesis. For the nation as a whole, the number of sole proprietors jumped from 36.4 million in December 2007 to 37.1 million two years later, an increase of nearly 2 percent.

In Maine, the reverse was true. In December 2007, we had just over 192,000 sole proprietors. By December 2009, that number had fallen to just over 187,000 — a decline of 2.6 percent. And that decline ranked us dead last among all the states and the District of Columbia.

And there seems to be no relationship between change in “official” businesses (those reporting employees) and sole proprietorships.

Nevada ranked first with a 6.8 percent growth in sole proprietors between 2007 and 2009, but saw a 2.4 percent decline in businesses with payroll.

Oklahoma, Wyoming, Louisiana and D.C. all had growth in the number of sole proprietors in excess of 5 percent while at the same time showing positive growth in payroll businesses.

On the other hand, Iowa, Alaska and Arkansas were like Maine with declines in the numbers of sole proprietors, but each saw positive growth in the number of payroll businesses.

Only five other states joined Maine with declines in both the numbers of payroll businesses and the number of sole proprietors: Wisconsin, Missouri, Kentucky, Idaho and North Carolina.

What, if anything, do these states share that caused their double-barreled employment problems through this last recession?

Beats me. But, if nothing else, these confusing findings underline the need to find the individual root causes of our unique economic situations and try to formulate policies to address exactly those problems.

With economic development, as with our health, crises and faddish solutions will come and go, but in the end, we each have to find what works for us to reach and maintain a sustainable level of personal well-being.

Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at:

[email protected]