Maine’s population growth shows changing economic choices

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In the 1970s it was a popular bumper sticker in Maine. It meant “Keep the people out of Maine”.

A drastic slowdown in the state’s population growth took place over the following decades. In 2020, the trend has reversed. It could be part of a historic national economic transformation.

The population grew in the 1970s by an annual average of 1.27 percent, more than most Northeastern states. Some Mainers worried about the changes that might come with the influx of people “from afar”.

Without any formal action to discourage growth, the rate fell. In the decade 2010-2019, it had fallen to an annual increase of 0.12%, not even a tenth of the previous period. The share of the state’s population born in Maine was also declining.

The recent turnaround has been sharp and brutal. It could change Maine and its economy.

Although there is no formal analysis of the change, four factors should be considered: global warming, COVID-19, mass electronics and changing values. Maine can provide clues to demographic shifts across the country.

Judging by search engine results, people are increasingly interested in finding the best places to live as the climate changes. They are looking for places where the impact of warming will be limited and perhaps where it will produce benefits.

Unless you really loved winter decades ago, Maine wasn’t where you would move. Mid-winter temperatures were often below zero. But now in many places it is a rarity.

Take January 31, usually a coldest weekday of the year, in 1970 and the same date in 2020, half a century later. Average 2020 temperatures in Bangor and Portland were each about 10 degrees warmer than in 1970. Forget zero; in Portland it was 30 degrees, just two degrees below zero.

Studies predict that one of the best places to live in the United States as the planet warms will be the Northeast. This produces a favorable rating for Maine, making it less of a challenge for people who don’t like very cold weather.

COVID-19 has made remote work a necessity for some who have found it to offer a surprisingly attractive lifestyle. So you don’t have to be in the office, the usual workplace in a service economy, no matter where you live. As the shutdowns dragged on, for some people, working from home became a desirable part of the “new normal.”

The increased speed and capacity of electronic communications and data transfers are critical to being able to work remotely. The government has increasingly focused on helping to rapidly increase broadband for the general population.

Not only does this encourage people to think about moving to places with lifestyle benefits, especially for families, but it opens up new locations for employers. They don’t have to go where the workers are; workers can address them electronically.

Finally, the Mainers themselves can change. A recently published novel, “The Midcoast” by Adam White, takes Damariscotta as an example. The city is becoming mainstream, “trading ‘authenticity’ for what looks like an airbrushed portrait of itself,” as White writes. Maine itself is increasingly becoming “come from afar,” part of a culturally homogenized country.

Every year, United Van Lines, a leading national moving company, conducts a survey to find out who is moving (not just their customers) and why. His latest study found that in 2021, Maine became a leading state for immigration. Last year, 58% of all moves were inbound and only 42% outbound.

Who is coming? Retirees and people looking for a new lifestyle and new jobs. They are strongly aged 45 to 54 and have incomes of $100,000 or more. Who leaves ? Those who move for family reasons and retirees. They are 65 or older and have incomes of less than $100,000.

The top supplying state for new Mainers is Massachusetts, while the top destination is Florida.

Won’t Maine’s high cost of living, including taxes, prevent a real turnaround? The cost difference with other states is largely a myth, as sellers consider market conditions when pricing their products. Gasoline costs essentially the same in Maine these days as it does in Boston.

The cost of living in Maine has proven to be an advantage rather than a disadvantage for the movers, despite the state having higher taxes than its competitors in the Northeast and Florida. Movers may consider taxes as part of the overall cost of living. And more residents with higher incomes could increase tax revenue, eliminating the need for future tax increases.

The bottom line, if there is one already, is that Maine is changing and that may reflect broader national trends. The nature of the US economy could be transformed by global warming and the effects of COVID-19, as well as the wider spread of communications and advanced technologies.

The result for Maine may be increased population and prosperity, but at the expense of its unique personality.