Secret Lives of Mainers
Many things we think we know about Maine people aren’t true, and other truths may surprise you.
- By: Colin Woodard
- Illustrations by: Steve Meyers
In the stereotype of popular culture, Mainers are a flannel-wearing people who spend their time hauling lobster traps, swinging axes at mighty pine trees, or dispensing advice to passers-by from the benches of the general store. We think of ourselves as a state that’s dodged most of the excesses and many of the problems of other parts of the East Coast, where crime is low (outside our “cities” at least), the kids are safe from drugs, and multi-generational roots keep communities from forgetting what they’re all about. We’re over-taxed, but at least our education system works.
But dig into the data, and you’ll find that many of these commonly held beliefs aren’t true at all. Who we Mainers actually are — and what we do and don’t do —may come as a complete surprise.
NATIVES OR NEWCOMERS? Ask many people who live here, and they’ll tell you that Maine communities are dominated by “the natives,” people whose families have lived in a particular locality for generations. But natives are getting to be in short supply. Only 64 percent of Maine’s 1.2 million people were born here, according to a 2007 US Census Bureau survey, and a full 3 percent weren’t living here just one year before. That makes Maine no more “native-dominated” than Massachusetts (also with 64 percent native-born), but more so than New Hampshire (42 percent), Vermont (53 percent), or the U.S as a whole (59 percent born in state of residence). It’s also a big change from 1970, when more than 79 percent of Maine residents were born here.
There are wide regional disparities, which mirror proximity to the East Coast megalopolis, from which most in-migrants come: York County in the far south has the lowest proportion of native Mainers (50 percent), Aroostook County in the far north the highest (71 percent). In the lower half of the state, at least, being “from away” is fast becoming the norm.
NOT SO CLOSE TO THE LAND Again in popular culture, Maine is presumed to be a land of fishermen, farmers, and lumberjacks, hearty resource harvesters wresting their livelihood from that wiliest of bosses: Mother Nature. In reality, only 1.6 percent of our workforce does any of those things, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which reports that the state’s 470 farm, greenhouse, and nursery workers are now officially outnumbered by the 480 people whose job is categorized as “legislator.”
The most common job in Maine isn’t lobstermen or lumberjack, it’s retail sales clerk, followed closely by cashier; there are more people working in either of those professions than all the fishermen, farmers, and forestry workers combined. The biggest private employer in the state — during the fourth-quarter holiday season anyway — is L.L. Bean, followed by Hannaford and WalMart (three firms with plenty of clerks and cashiers). “All of our customer satisfaction work is done in Maine,” says L.L. Bean spokesperson Carolyn Beem, as is the manufacturing of Bean boots, dog beds, and tote bags, which accounts for three hundred employees in Brunswick and Lewiston. The company’s permanent workforce of five thousand nearly doubles for the holidays, “primarily in customer satisfaction, distribution, and retail,” says Beem.
AND NOT THE HIGHEST TAXED It’s often claimed that Maine has the highest tax burden in the nation, an assertion that has many Mainers agitating for reform. Polls show strong support for tax cuts and a “taxpayers bill of rights” that would restrict government spending, and there have been repeated attempts to use the referendum process (including one this month) to reduce property taxes. The people are hopping mad, it seems, and aren’t going to take it any more.
But while our tax burden is much higher than, say, New Hampshire, we’re far from the top of the list. When state and local income taxes, sales taxes, and property taxes are all taken into account, Maine ranks fifteenth highest of the fifty states, according to the non-partisan Tax Foundation in Washington, DC. So where did Mainers get the idea they were the most taxed people in the land? From the very same organization, which mistakenly reported our state as being number one five times between 1997 and 2006.
It turns out that our top rankings were based on flawed data — property taxes paid here by out-of-staters (for instance, those with vacation cottages) were included in calculating the residents’ tax burden — and in reality Maine has never ranked higher than number five. “Your tax burden is relatively high, but [you’ve] never been at the top of the list,” says Tax Foundation spokesperson Natasha Altamirano, who notes that Maine has the second highest proportion of second homes in the country, after Vermont.
DAZED AND CONFUSED Nine percent of Maine sixth graders have used inhalants at some point in their lives, and 5 percent have done so in the past month, according to a 2006 survey by the Maine Office of Substance Abuse. Ten percent of Mainers age twelve or over report having consumed an illicit drug in the past month, with 102,000 (9 percent) having used marijuana, 53,000 (5 percent) painkillers, and 25,000 (2 percent) cocaine. In fact, federal surveys rank Maine tenth highest among the states for drug use in the past month. This actually makes us less druggy than our neighbors, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island (which leads the nation).
Mainers rank fourth highest in the country for pot smoking, but well below the national average for past-month use of other illicit substances. We’re twenty-first in drinking — 53 percent of those twelve and over have consumed alcohol in the last month — and twenty-first in tobacco use (three people in ten smoke.) The same survey found that just over 9 percent of Maine adults have had at least one major depressive episode in the past year, a level exceeded by only four other states, all of them in the South or West.
DOWNHILL CRIME Mainers are pretty law abiding: in 2007 the state had the lowest violent crime rate — and the lowest incarceration rate — in the nation. What crime there is tends to be concentrated in the bigger towns. Augusta has the second highest crime rate at 65.74 per thousand residents, followed closely by Calais (64.86) and Bangor (63.15). But the crime capital of Maine may surprise you: it’s Carrabassett Valley (229.12), with a rate more than quadruple that of Portland (52.88).
But there’s no need to fear for your life when visiting Sugarloaf’s hometown: Crime there consists almost entirely of reported thefts of ski or snowboarding equipment, much of it erroneous. “You have hundreds of people up here skiing each day and everybody has the same types of skis,” town police chief Scott Nichols explains. “At the end of the day they come out of the base lodge and grab what they think are their skis and they don’t realize their mistake until a few days or weeks later when they find they can’t fit in their bindings.” The skis often make it back to their owners, but the “crimes” tend to remain on the books. “Everybody behaves themselves pretty well up here,” Nichols adds.
A SECULAR STATE Northern New Englanders are the least religious people in the country, according to a national Gallup poll released in January. Asked if religion was “an important part of your daily life,” only 48 percent of Mainers said yes, less than any state save New Hampshire (46 percent) and Vermont (42 percent). Mississippi was reckoned the most religious, at 85 percent.
GRADUATING, BUT NOT FROM COLLEGE Mainers have one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country — 89 percent — and every county scores over 82 percent. But internal and external disparities grow at the postsecondary level. A quarter of Mainers have graduated from college, meaning they have at least an associate’s degree, but the rate in Cumberland County (38.9 percent) is more than double that of Aroostook, Somerset, Oxford, Androscoggin, and Washington counties. Cumberland also retains more than its share of people with master’s degrees or more (8.9 percent of residents). But that rate is about half the Massachusetts state average, and it pales in comparison with the affluent Boston suburbs of Middlesex County (22.7 percent).
“We are a state of first-generation college students, and part of the challenge is helping Maine parents realize the value of higher education when they didn’t themselves experience it,” says Wendy Ault, executive director of the MELMAC Education Foundation in Augusta, which helps finance college for Maine students, and who notes that there aren’t a lot of jobs requiring college or advanced degrees in large swaths of the state. “There are parts of Maine where families recognize that if they send their kids to college they’re not going to come back because there are no jobs for them, so they send subtle and not-so subtle messages on the value of higher education.”
Meanwhile parents are getting their toddlers off to a good start; a federal survey found Maine to have the highest proportion of children five and under who are read to every day (64 percent), after Vermont.
POOR, YES Mainers were once very poor, and some still are, particularly — once again — at the remote northern and eastern ends of the state. One in five residents of Washington County lives in poverty, and those in Aroostook are just a hair better off. York County is the least impoverished at 8.7 percent, but that’s still far higher than Greater Boston (7.2 percent) or neighboring Seacoast New Hampshire (4.8 percent). Maine ranks thirty-sixth in median household income.
BUT ALSO PROUD As of the end of June, we have one of the lowest bankruptcy rates in the country, ranking us fortieth of the fifty states. The reason: Yankee thrift, according to Leslie Linfield of the Institute for Financial Literacy, a national financial education group based in Portland. “There’s this cultural attitude around repayment of debt, and surrendering to bankruptcy is the absolute last things they will do because it’s a public death,” she says, noting that this mindset is not as widespread in the South and southwestern U.S., which have the highest bankruptcy rates. “There are different attitudes about money: the further north you go, the more frugal. Even in southern New England the attitude is more like in the mid-Atlantic states which is, “ ‘Let’s run to the mall.’ ”
VETERANS EVERYWHERE Mainers have long served in the military in unusually high numbers; in the Civil War we suffered the highest casualty rate of any Union state. As of the last census, veterans comprise a higher proportion of the adult population — 15.9 percent — than any state save Alaska, Montana, Nevada, and Wyoming. If anything, that ranking is too low, according to Maine Bureau of Veterans’ Service director Peter Ogden, who notes that the census figures exclude veterans of past conflicts who are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, of which Maine has an outsized number.
Nearly half of Maine’s 150,000 “official” vets are over the age of sixty-five, he says, and the federal Veterans Affairs department spends half a billion dollars a year here on their needs, “a real economic driver.” Contrary to national trends, most of our vets live in rural areas, which makes providing services to them all the more difficult.
Ogden notes that Maine, like its vet-heavy western rivals, is a large state with a small population, and many young people join the armed forces to receive education benefits, job training, and other opportunities unavailable where they live. “We have a long military history and people answer the call of duty because their father or grandfather did it,” he says. “We’ve had no problem recruiting for the Guard and Reserves in Maine.” Which says a lot about Mainers.
- By: Colin Woodard
- Illustrations by: Steve Meyers