It is often said that we can’t get rich taking in our own laundry. We have to export stuff beyond the borders of our own area to create growing prosperity.

And this old saw is certainly true. The fact that Sappi sells paper products and Unum sells insurance policies to customers around the world brings income to Maine we wouldn’t otherwise have. But there is another source of outside income that isn’t as obvious: the money brought into Maine by residents who commute to jobs outside our borders. Looking at this element of our “exports” gives a somewhat different – or at least wider – look at our road to future prosperity.

Consider for a moment what the Bureau of Economic Analysis calls “the net inflow of earnings of inter-area commuters” for the 50 states plus the District of Columbia. D.C. is clearly the poster child for income exporting. In 2014, the district’s personal income amounted to just over $50 billion. Of that, a net of $42 billion went to recipients who did not live in the district, ranking it 51st in terms of “net inflow of inter-area commuters.” Maryland and Virginia, naturally, showed up as the beneficiaries of this “net outflow” from D.C. They enjoyed positive inflows of $28 billion and $13 billion respectively. Standardizing by measuring net inflow per $10,000 of total income, Maryland ranked first, with a net inflow of $836, and Virginia ranked sixth, with a net inflow of $309.

Similarly high net inflows show up for New Jersey and Connecticut – obviously the result of their proximity to New York City. But why is this a big deal for Maine?

Because we rank eighth nationally, with a net inflow of just over $218. New Hampshire ranks third, with a net inflow of $771, and Rhode Island ranks fourth at $325. At the other end of the scale, New York ranks 48th, with a net outflow of $461, and Massachusetts ranks 48th with a net outflow of $177.

So what’s the point? Simply put, the labor market is becoming more regional. Growing enterprises in New York and Boston are drawing employees from surrounding states, spreading their earnings impact out to a wider area. More importantly for Maine, our rate of growth in this spread is faster than our neighbors. Since 2009, the net inflow in interstate commuting income in Maine has increased by 10.5 percent, while the growth in New Hampshire was 7.8 percent and in Rhode Island only 0.2 percent. These trends, coupled with the fact that the outflow from Massachusetts also grew by 10 percent since 2009, point to a positive sign for the Maine economy. At least some of us are participating in an increasingly regional northeastern economy.

And, at least potentially, this regionalization holds the promise of changing from the outward flow of workers to an inward flow of business enterprises. Commercial real estate prices in Maine are attractive compared with central Boston. If an increasingly large part of the labor force of growing Massachusetts companies already commutes from Maine, the uncertainty of finding workers with the needed skills is clearly reduced.

The economic development challenge, therefore, becomes finding welcoming communities and articulating a coherent sales pitch combining quality of life with the assurance of a supportive entrepreneurial ecosystem that ensures a clear horizon for growth.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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