Maine has finally recovered from the Great Recession.
It’s a good news story, singed along the edges by the underlying details.
Our state was slower than it should have been to recover. Bad policy decisions got in the way.
Uneven growth around the state has left rural areas struggling, while urban areas are doing better. There’s no consensus in Augusta on how to stabilize rural Maine.
And Gov. Paul LePage keeps us arguing about problems that are minor or don’t really exist instead of working on solutions to problems that are real.
It’s a recipe for stagnation or worse, decline.
The Bangor Daily News’ Darren Fishell consistently looks at Maine through the lens of data. His reporting is often numbers heavy, and not nearly as exciting as the latest blow-up by LePage or shining rhetorical object tossed out by president-elect Donald Trump.
But if you believe in facts — strange that such a qualifier is necessary — his stories should help policymakers sort out the best approaches to economic recovery.
Simply put, but for “people from away” — a term that chafes common sense — Maine’s population would be declining. More people are dying in the state every year than are being born.
About 4,000 people moved to Maine in the past year, meaning our state’s overall population is up a miserly 2,000. The growth reversed what happened in 2015, when Maine was one of seven states to see its population decline.
Now about the economy: According to Fishell’s data, Maine has finally gotten back to where it was on the eve of the Great Recession in 2007. That took way too long.
But the economy is different than it used to be, and it will come as no surprise rural communities in the northern and western parts of the state continue to struggle.
Manufacturing, wood products, paper and pulp are down, seafood exports are up and the service economy is growing. Aroostook, Oxford and Franklin counties started 2016 with fewer jobs than in 2015 and, Fishell found, other rural areas gained jobs more slowly than the state as a whole.
The Maine State Chamber of Commerce is connecting the dots, and tying the need for greater in-migration to our state’s long-term economic prospects.
In a report released in the fall with the Maine Development Foundation, the chamber makes the case that our state must attract and integrate people from other states and other countries if we want to prosper.
“The overall message is clear: we are facing a workforce shortage that, if current conditions continue, will become more severe in the years ahead,” the report says. “This will in turn constrain the success and growth of existing businesses and make it difficult to attract and develop new ones, constraining our economic growth.”
Certainly, this is a message that thoughtful leaders have been talking about for years. But it’s worth repeating.
While I agree with the report, there’s an underlying message that’s wrong: “The current situation is no one’s fault,” the report states at one point.
It’s politically astute; the goal of the report is to build consensus instead of casting blame; but it runs counter to solving the problem identified in the rest of the report.
To grow our population, to support our workforce and to improve our economic situation, we have to change what we do, how we think and what we say.
And that’s a lot harder than recognizing a shortfall in the workforce or the changing nature of the economy. We don’t need the census or the Federal Reserve Bank to tell us what’s happening in mill towns. Just walk around them and you see it.
But if we’re to reverse the slide, we have to be the change we want to see and the way we treat people based on geography, skin color and even religion.
During the last election, politicians were attacked for not being real Mainers, for having the audacity of being born somewhere else but wanting to make a difference here.
Immigrants were ruthlessly and wrongly attacked, blamed for everything from terrorism and crime to carrying diseases.
Heck, even native Mainers — generations born and raised in rural parts of the state — were attacked for wanting to be “Portland liberals.”
We try to bail out failing industries, but refuse to invest and support new ones that have the potential to grow. And we throw rocks at people who are trying to do good work because they’re not from here or bring a new perspective.
The data tell the story of what’s happening, and a roadmap exists to start turning things around.
There are a lot of things that make our state feel like two very different places, but the fate of rural Maine and our urban areas are tied together. We can’t be successful unless we stop with the artificial distinctions.
We’ve got to retire the judgment that somehow “people from away” are morally suspect, and we must end our isolationist tendencies. Those old jokes just aren’t funny any more, and frankly they’re holding us back.