While Maine’s population has seen modest growth in all but one decade for the past two centuries, this growth has not kept pace with that of the nation as a whole. And more recently, our state’s percentage of the national population has dipped from 0.5 percent to 0.4 percent, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures for 2010. Along the way, Maine has seen its number of representatives to Congress decline from a high of eight down to two. If our tepid population growth continues — or, worse, should it turn negative — Maine could find itself joining the seven other states that now have only a single member in the U.S. House.
A U.S. Census Bureau report released last week estimates that Maine’s population declined by 928 people from 2014 to 2015. Only five of the state’s 16 counties saw any population growth, nearly all of it in the southern part of the state. Not surprisingly, Cumberland County led the way with an estimated increase of 0.7 percent (2,102 people). York County was next with growth of 0.3 percent (561 people), Waldo County with growth of 0.3 percent (130 people), Sagadahoc County with growth of 0.2 percent (86 people) and Knox County with an increase of 0.1 percent (57 people).
Kennebec County led the population loss with a decline of 1,046 people (0.9 percent). Our own Hancock County, which not so long ago was seeing significant population increase, saw a loss of 79 people (0.1 percent).
The handwriting is on the wall. The manufacturing industries in Maine continue to decline, and that’s not likely to turn around. First textiles, then shoemaking. Now, the paper industry, which provided thousands of good-paying jobs with benefits for decades, is rapidly disappearing. Nothing comparable is on the horizon to take its place.
Maine’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for February was just 3.6 percent, the lowest since March 2001. But many of those workers are struggling to make ends meet in low-paying jobs and lack the skills to gain better employment. That lack of skilled workers, coupled with our stagnant population, leaves many Maine employers unable to fill the jobs they have available. Clearly, Maine needs more people — to boost the economy, add to the tax base and support our infrastructure and business community.
With little, if any, major industrial growth in our future, what is Maine to do? We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: our state should make a concerted effort to recruit people to move to Maine to spend their later years.
Our state has many characteristics that make it an attractive place for retirement. Clean air and water; beautiful scenery with peace and quiet; a four-season climate with few catastrophic weather events; three small but vibrant metropolitan areas and hundreds of smaller, attractive communities; a low crime rate; high quality degree-granting educational institutions; thriving arts and music communities; and housing costs and real estate taxes lower than those of most urban areas across the nation.
By moving ahead with pending legislation to eliminate Maine’s inheritance tax on estates valued at more than $5.4 million, the legislature could eliminate one more disincentive for those who otherwise might be inclined to become Mainers in retirement, bringing with them their accumulated wealth and the contribution it could make to our economy. Maine is one of just 21 states with either an estate or inheritance tax — an egregious tax imposed on heirs of people who already paid income, sales, property and other taxes on the wealth they accumulated over a lifetime.
In addition to repealing the estate tax, the legislature should face the reality that trying to convince corporations — most of which want special benefits that come at the expense of taxpayers and existing businesses — to locate here is not likely to pay dividends. It’s time for a new approach. Maine’s latest census figures provide ample evidence that more must be done to grow our population if we are to have a viable economic future. Spreading the word that Maine is a great place to live out one’s life is a good way to start.