“There is no precedent in human history for economic growth on declining human capital – and that’s before anyone invented unsustainable welfare systems.” – Mark Steyn, America Alone
The Maine Heritage Policy Center has done considerable research and exposition on Maine’s ‘demographic winter’ in recent years. To date however, we see precious little policy emphasis to do anything to reverse it. In many ways, we see just the opposite: continued opposition to most development; unyielding pressure for greater spending and taxes; inability to understand fundamental economic vitality; and continuance of a multi-decade, multi-generational welfare oriented culture.
Most troubling is that the structure of state population over time is trending in the wrong direction. Young people have been declining as a part of the population for some time, and projections are that the shift will continue at a disturbing pace. Laurie Lachance, former Maine State Economist, and former head of the Maine Development Foundation, pointed out several years ago that “Maine’s school age population is in decline as well as college age and young working age.” The “boomer generation” is coming of retirement age, and effecting social and demographic trends everywhere.
Maine’s K-12 enrollment peaked at 218,600 in 1995-1996, and has been declining steadily since. By 2006, it had declined to 200,200, or nearly 10% less. By the 2102-2013 school year, it was down to 185,000, a decrease of 7.6%.
This is our ‘seed corn,’ in a manner of speaking. Those we hope will be ‘our future,’ and build families, homes, careers, and businesses here. But the outlook is not encouraging at all. In addition to lower student population, young adults leave the state for brighter futures elsewhere, contributing to the decline of traditional family makeup, connections, and support.
Generally speaking, birthrates are down world-wide. If you think Maine’s population trends are not credible, be aware that declines in population growth, some far worse than in Maine, are common around the world. In Europe in particular, Spain, Germany, Italy, Greece and others are literally dying off; their populace is generating far, far fewer births than necessary to offset death rates.
We must abandon any notion that growth is continuous, natural, and dependable. Especially in school age youngsters. The evidence says just the opposite, the trends are in the wrong direction, and there is nothing on the horizon that can be expected to turn this around. Quite the contrary, actually; there are forces at work that will likely make things worse.
Among other things, average family size is a factor in this decline. Not long ago, large families were the norm. I am the youngest of 5 children. My siblings have 25 children between them and vast numbers of grandchildren. We have two children, and each is married with two children. How often these days do you see a young family with 4, 5, or 6 children? Years ago, these families filled schools; now they are a distinct rarity, if not an oddity.
Maine has among the worst economies and business climates in the nation. The age group least affected by these factors are retirees, who appear to be the only growing demographic in the state.
The most vocal activists in Maine are those who are fundamentally anti-growth for one reason or another. One of the manifestations of this activism is a taxpayer supported program called
“Land for Maine’s Future,” or said another way, a future for Maine’s land. The program buys up private lands, takes them off the tax rolls, and effectively prohibits future development upon them. So we might think of it as ‘land for no-one’s future.’ Brunswick has a similar program, funded by local property tax payers and grants, or OPM (other people’s money.)
These programs came about from fevered concern about unconstrained growth, or more fashionably, “sprawl.” Conservation and “smart growth” became the watchwords of this wing of the environmental movement. Public ownership of the land is supposed to “preserve” it. Private property ownership is, to many, unjust and oppressive.
Land is, obviously, a fixed entity. The State of Maine, given its large size and small population, has a plentiful supply of it. We are 38th in population density – less than half the US average. In the midst of numerous other serious challenges, “preserving” land is hardly an urgent priority.
You may have noticed we don’t hear much about “sprawl” these days. And that GrowSmart Maine, once a very public presence in policy discussions, has faded into the background. Growth in Maine of any sort (other than ‘growing’ old), has ceased to be much of a concern, as it is virtually non-existent. Why is that?
Because people (“human capital”) are the most important component of and stimulus for growth. But unlike our land, the supply of our people is not fixed. Adults age and pass on; children grow up and move on, looking for opportunity elsewhere, and taking their family formation potential with them. Maine is in a demographic winter, with the oldest population in the nation, and a fertility rate that is well below the growth range (or even replacement levels.) Lack of opportunity leads to near zero in-migration, especially when financially comfortable retirees are taken out of the mix.
How many established Maine families can say their children and grandchildren have stayed here where they grew up, or are committed to doing so? Without their family formation potential, Maine’s demographic and population outlook is decidedly gloomy and non-growth oriented. Not to mention the detriment to ‘quality of life’ when offspring and other members of core family feel obligated to move elsewhere. Oh well, we have lots of pretty trees, hills, and scenic vistas to take the place of family.
When the birth rate falls below a critical level, population recovery, or even stabilization, becomes numerically impossible. Unless we do something to turn this around, a desirable and vibrant future for Maine is not possible. Government purchase of private lands is the last thing we need to worry about and prioritize.
Instead, we need to attract, raise, and retain people if Maine is to have a future, and we need to provide abundant opportunity for these people if they are to have a future that keeps them here, prospering and raising our next generations. And strengthening the basic societal construct of nuclear family.
It’s time to put aside programs like “Land for Maine’s Future” that play to unwarranted and outdated fears, and put the focus where it belongs:
“People for Maine’s future, and a future for Maine’s people!”
I respectfully offer this concept for development into a guiding principle and theme for Maine Heritage, the state of Maine, and all who wish to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness here. With their family members, young and old.
If we can do that, the slogan ‘Maine – the way life should be’ may just have a fighting chance to be relevant once again.
In closing, it wouldn’t hurt to read this truism again: “There is no precedent in human history for economic growth on declining human capital – and that’s before anyone invented unsustainable welfare systems.”
Pem Schaeffer is a retired systems engineer and business development leader. He blogs at http://othersideofbrunswick.blogspot.com/ and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.