Saturday, February 18, 2006

Falling further behind in the Pine Tree State

According to two nationally-recognized, non-partisan organizations, Maine’s poorest families are falling farther behind the rest of the state in income growth.

Both the Washington, DC-based, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and the Economic Policy Institute, found that the average income of Maine’s poorest 20 percent, grew only 13 percent, to $15,975, over the past 20 years. The state’s richest 20 percent, however, saw their 20 year incomes boosted nearly 60 percent, to an average of $103,785.

There are multiple factors stimulating this economic divide in this state, as well as other rural states, between the haves and have-nots. According to the state’s “paper of record, the Portland Press Herald, which commissioned a report on this study, the loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs, replaced by low-paying service jobs, and tax policies that inordinately favor the rich, over the working-class and the poor, were two primary factors.

Having just returned from a trip, last week, to Washington County, the state’s poorest region, the poverty in this area of the state is both palpable and discouraging. While this area of Maine has been written about and continues to occupy some prominence on lawmaker’s radars, there seems to be little short-term hope of turning the tide in an area of the state that has no shortage of natural beauty, or hearty employees eager for a ray of optimism.

Per usual, comments on the report gravitate towards finding a solution with an eye to that great panacea of all problems, more education. Yet, despite our lip-service we pay towards fulfilling our commission to providing a highly-educated and well-trained workforce, programs that might make a difference often receive the axe, with the continual call from some quarters, to pare budgets. Adding to the problem is that despite having a college degree, many Maine workers continue to be under-employed due to the state’s low rates of pay, compared to states to our south.

Rather telling of the ignorance by lawmakers, are Christopher Rector’s (R-Thomaston) comments about preparing Mainers for the workforce. Rector, who is the ranking Republican on the Legislature’s Business, Research and Economic Development Committee is quoted on promoting education, in the Press Herald.

“What it (the study) speaks to is our need to do a better job making our employees job-ready and capable of doing higher-skilled work,” he said.

Oh, does it? By higher skilled, does that mean the skills necessary for checking out shoppers at Target or Wal-Mart and answering telephone calls for diet pills for one of the state’s many call centers? Or maybe it’s being paid $11/hour to answer customer calls for T-Mobile in Waterville, after being paid manufacturing wages at Hathaway Shirts, before it closed its doors?

The issue is not lack of education. I just spent time talking to students at the University of Maine at Machias, where 95 percent of them told me they are leaving the state after they graduate in May. The primary reason—no jobs in their respective majors of Biology/Science, or Recreation Management.

The problem for Maine workers isn’t that they lack skills, or other qualities, such as motivation and productivity. The biggest issue seems to be the lack of living-wage occupations in a state that is increasingly made up of service-sector occupations. With these jobs often paying less than $10/hour, this type of economy will continue to widen the income disparity in Maine, as well as perpetuating the state's image as a haven for well-heeled retirees.

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