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Monday January 23, 2017
Posted: Aug 27, 2014

Northern Maine is losing population – here are some reasons why

Commercial Confidential — Business and economics news for greater Portland

Screen Shot 2014-08-27 at 11.13.42 AMYesterday we posted an interactive map of Maine's recent population changes, from 2010 to 2013, based on estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey.

This was one of those data sets with clear patterns that really leap out at you: the towns of northern and central Maine are bleeding population, while towns in Cumberland and York Counties – especially the suburbs of Portland (and, to a lesser extent, the suburbs of Bangor) – are surging with growth.

Several people have asked me why that might be, and I have a few hunches that I'll share here.

There are two fundamental causes of population growth: the ratio of births to deaths (demographers call this "natural" population growth), and migration.

Mainers are, on average, older than the rest of the nation, and an older population naturally produces fewer kids and more funerals.

But some parts of Maine are older than others – and those areas of the state with higher proportions of people older that 65 are also, in general, the areas that are losing population right now.

Screen Shot 2014-08-27 at 10.15.41 AM
Source: "Older Adults and Adults with Physical Disabilities: Population and Service Use Trends in Maine"

Then there's the second factor: migration. Last week, my colleague Jennifer Van Allen had a piece about the boom of housing construction in Windham. According to the Census Bureau's estimates, Windham also had the second-biggest population gain from 2010 to 2013. Aside from York and Wells (where a fair amount of construction is built for vacationers), the towns with the biggest gains in single-family home construction are also the towns with the biggest population gains:

Top markets for single-family home construction, 2010-2013

Permits issued*
Population gain

*Data for single-family homebuilding permits only (multifamily apartment projects excluded).
Source: Construction Data New England.

Note that Portland is absent from the list above. There have been some high-profile apartment projects built in the city since 2010, but generally speaking, the number of new condos and apartments in the city hasn't come near to the number of new homes being built in any single one of these towns. Rising rents in the city indicate that people clearly would like to live there, and the city's population did increase modestly during this period, but the ongoing in-town housing shortage likely played a role in forcing some households out into the suburbs, where more housing options are available.

The availability of new single-family homes also might have an effect on a community's "natural" population growth. If young families are moving to the suburbs to have kids, then those towns will have both in-migration and an increased birth rate.

On a statewide level, jobs also seem to have a strong influence in regional population shifts. Since the recession, unemployment rates in southern and coastal Maine have consistently been lower than in western and northern Maine – and the largest volumes of jobs are in Cumberland and York counties, which together account for nearly half of the state's economic output.

Unemployment rates by county

The high unemployment rate in northern and western Maine probably contributes to those regions' aging demographic profiles. With a bleak job outlook, younger workers in those areas are more likely to look elsewhere for a place to find a career and raise a family.

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