Maine’s economy will keep lagging when the vulnerable are left behind

Expera Specialty Solutions' mill in Old Town, which the company plans to close by the end of the year. Gabor Degre | BDN

Expera Specialty Solutions’ mill in Old Town, which the company plans to close by the end of the year. Gabor Degre | BDN

Maine faces a real, honest-to-goodness crisis in our rural communities.

The problems are substantial and complicated, and they can’t be solved by sitting down and sharpening the pencil or through a simplistic policy pronouncement or scapegoating some of our people.

And the problem is mirrored all across the country as many rural communities face changing economic markets, aging populations and crumbling infrastructure.

Instead of facing these challenges head on and with honesty, political leaders such as Gov. Paul LePage, Lewiston Mayor Bob Macdonald, the Maine Republican Party and presidential candidate Donald Trump focus our attention on distractions.

They attack immigrants and refugees, dehumanizing people who are only trying to build better lives for themselves and their families. They take their humanity away by referring to them as “illegals” and talk about “rounding them up.”

Macdonald, on a tear last week, joined the national circus by calling for a registry of people receiving public benefits. The Scarlet Letter ploy gained no political support in Maine, but it sure boosted the mayor’s profile and earned him national attention.

In the past, Macdonald has targeted immigrants for his ire. This time his target was kids with special needs. As Bangor Daily News blogger Mike Tipping reported: Macdonald apparently wanted to include children who receive special education services on his website of shame.

What’s stunning about the revelation is its honesty. When we talk about programs such as food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and even General Assistance, the biggest beneficiaries are children and the elderly. Macdonald, perhaps by accident, reveals that the real targets aren’t “able bodied adults,” but vulnerable children.

With LePage firmly holding the leash, the Maine Republican Party has also joined the fray, proposing a likely illegal citizen’s initiative that tries to convince voters that they can have lower taxes if they just kick the bums off “welfare.”

And Trump, the leader of the GOP presidential field, has soared to the lead in polls while offering nothing but brash talks and ridiculous ideas. Ever the showman, Trump excelled during an interview on “60 Minutes” earlier this week. He was convincingly earnest and completely lacking in substance.

His answers are nonsensical. Build a wall? Start a trade war? Force other countries to change their policies? Because, Donald says so?

None of this makes a tinker’s damn. These ideas won’t improve the lives of people in Maine, they won’t help to revitalize rural economies or help our children. Instead, they will make our state and nation weaker, poorer, uglier and less secure.

With the headlines dominated by the news of mill closures in Lincoln, Old Town, East Millinocket and Bucksport and layoffs in Jay, we need to diversify our thinking and stop pretending that “immigrants” and “welfare cheats” are causing our problems.

The workforce in rural Maine is shrinking. The population is declining. In a world that is growing more and more connected, many of our rural communities are isolated.

The roads that connect them are failing. Information technology and connectivity are missing.

But instead of a concerted effort to fix our roads (and create jobs), improve communications (and create jobs), strengthen our schools (and create jobs), expand access to quality health care (and create jobs), grow renewable energy (and create jobs) and encourage diversity and in-migration to Maine (and create jobs), we are stuck in a xenophobic, fear-based argument about which group of disadvantaged people is doing more to take things away from us.

It’s a big lie.

But I guess the anger and hate are a lot easier to understand and a lot cheaper to implement.

During the same weak that Macdonald, LePage and Trump continued their appeals to our worst instincts, there was one person who broke through with a different message.

Speaking to the U.S. Congress, Pope Francis called on us to be better, to do better: “We must resolve now to live as nobly and as justly as possible. … Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities, which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.”

Our economy will not improve as long as we are content to leave children, the elderly and new arrivals behind. Our state cannot get stronger, and our people cannot prosper if we let hate and fear drive the debate.

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at