Maine often looks to New Hampshire for inspiration. The Granite State’s lack of sales and income taxes is frequent fodder for political and economic development debates in Augusta. But population was one area in which Maine long had the upper hand. For more than two centuries, more people lived in Maine than New Hampshire.
No more, according to new census data. The latest figures show New Hampshire with about 1,280 more people than Maine.
While this development has gotten a lot of attention, the long-term trend of Maine’s population stagnation is what is truly alarming. For the last five years, Maine’s population has barely budged. New Hampshire’s grew a little.
The real story is what has happened in the rest of the country, especially the southwest and west, as Maine largely stood still.
Since 1890, the population of California has grown 270 percent; Washington’s population has grown by more than 200 percent. Utah has grown 335 percent. Maine has grown just 45 percent.
Not only is Maine’s population not growing, Maine is the oldest state in the nation. This is especially problematic for economic development. More than half of Maine’s workforce will reach retirement age in the next 20 years. The economy will require more than 400,000 workers just to replace the retirees. But only 300,000 Mainers are currently under the age of 20. That’s the group expected to replace those aging out of the workforce. By simple math, that means Maine is already 100,000 workers short of filling a looming workforce gap.
Maine needs more people, especially younger, working-age people.
“Without positive natural change, Maine will depend on net in-migration to maintain our population and workforce,” the Maine Department of Labor wrote in its report “ Maine Workforce Outlook 2012-2022.” “In the recent recovery, net-migration to and from Maine has remained near zero. That trend must be reversed to maintain the size of our workforce.”
This phenomenon was well chronicled in the BDN’s recent three-part series on growing the state’s economy. The first installment highlighted the need to grow Maine’s workforce by attracting immigrants, both from other parts of the world and the country.
Many readers objected to this conclusion, arguing that Maine needs to focus on taking care of its own people; the state can’t afford more immigrants, many argued. The desire to help locals is understandable, but Maine can — and must — continue to do this while welcoming newcomers, too. In fact, attracting newcomers will ultimately help those who already live here.
An aging, shrinking workforce can’t draw businesses to Maine, and it limits the growth of businesses that are already here and trying to grow. To draw businesses and jobs and help Maine businesses flourish, the state needs more people. Since they aren’t being born here, they must come from somewhere else.
Two-thirds of those living in Maine were born in the state. Most of the rest moved here from other states; only 4 percent were born in other countries.
Those living in Maine who weren’t born here have more education — an asset Maine needs in its newcomers. Forty percent of Maine’s residents who weren’t born in the state have a bachelor’s degree, twice the rate of natives, according to a New York Times analysis of state-to-state migration. More than 50 percent of immigrants in Maine have a bachelor’s degree. And immigrants are much younger — 27 on average — than the state’s overall population.
If you are a pessimist, it is easy to believe that Maine’s best days are behind it. But with a more welcoming attitude, Maine can grow and thrive in coming years.