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The ‘Two Maines’ by the numbers

Turn on the local news or pick up a Maine newspaper and it won’t take long for someone to mention the “Two Maines,” a rather nebulous term meant to encapsulate the many differences between Maine’s relatively prosperous coastal and southern counties and the more economically-depressed northern and western parts of the state. 

Rural Maine is generally regarded as poorer, less educated, and more demographically skewed than coastal Maine. Unfortunately, discussion of the “Two Maines” concept is rarely accompanied by hard data. Below, I use the latest Census figures to provide some key facts to help understand how the “Two Maines” differ, as well as the similarities they share.

For simplicity, I assume the line of demarcation between the “Two Maines” can be approximated by the boundary between Maine’s two congressional districts (CDs). CD 1 covers the southern, coastal part of the state stretching from Kittery nearly to Belfast and inland as far as Augusta and Waterville. CD 2 encompasses the rest of the state. 

Nowhere are the disparities between the “Two Maines” starker than in income. The median household income in CD 1 is $64,599, compared to $48,603 in CD 2. To put that in perspective, that is roughly the difference in median household income between New York and Alabama. In CD 1, the poverty rate is 8.7 percent, while 13.6 percent of people in CD 2 are poor. At the top of the income distribution, the number of households earning at least $200,000 per year in CD 1 is nearly three times larger than in CD 2.

Of course, income levels are partly tied to educational attainment, which also varies widely between the “Two Maines.” While 38.2 percent of CD 1 residents over the age of 25 have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, only 25.6% of CD 2 residents have done so. In addition, CD 1 has nearly twice the number of graduate and professional degree-holders as CD 2.

On the other hand, the age differences between the “Two Maines” are not as great as one might expect. The median age in CD 1 is 44 years, only 1.1 years younger than in CD 2. Besides, CD 2 has slightly fewer seniors and slightly more children under 5 years. Still, because of migration favoring southern and coastal counties, CD 1 is projected to grow modestly over the next decade as CD 2 loses thousands of residents.

CD 2’s looming demographic challenges are highlighted by this startling fact reported by the Maine State Economist, Amanda Rector: Only three counties in Maine had a peak decennial population in a year other than 2010; all of them were in CD 2. Aroostook County’s population peaked in 1960, Piscataquis County’s in 1920, and Washington County’s in 1900.

The housing market in CD 2 mirrors its demographic challenges. The average value of a home in CD 2 is almost $100,000 less than in CD 1, and residents of CD 2 are far more likely to have lived in their current home since before 1980 and far less likely to have moved in since 2015.

Rates of disability are significantly higher in CD 2, and about 30,000 more working-age individuals are out of the labor force than in CD 1. Yet the unemployment rate in both regions is exceptionally low. About 15,000 people work from home in CD 2, compared to 23,000 in CD 1. But despite the vast geographic expanse of CD 2, average commute times there are about a minute shorter than in CD 1.

In short, there are indeed vast economic differences between the “Two Maines” — so much so that if they were separate states, they would consistently fall at opposite ends of state rankings on key metrics. It’s easy to gloss over these differences when discussing state policies, but ignoring the reality will only exacerbate existing inequality and alienation.