Maine is the most rural state in the country. According the U.S. Census Bureau, rural is any area upwards of 2,500 residents which really covers most of the state. Maine is a state of vast uninhabited tracts, such as our northern forests, and widely scattered villages, family farms and small towns. Our largest urban area — greater Portland, at around 515,000 people — would barely be considered a small city in other more populated states.

But the nostalgic images we hold of rural America, and Maine in particular — scenic farmlands, historic barns, grange halls with bean suppers, general stores, neighbors helping neighbors — belie their complexity and the host of challenges they face. Behind “the way life should be” veneer, many communities are weighed down by large shifts in the American economy and culture which have weakened rather than strengthened them.

Demographics heads the list of challenges. Nationally, the population is aging rapidly, with rural areas leading the way. Those age 65 and older will double in the next 25 years; census maps show that as counties become more rural, they also become older. A corresponding decline in birth rates places Maine on the cusp of a significant workforce problem.

Globalization has also had a profound impact nationally, and on rural areas in particular. In Maine, we have seen whole industries — poultry production, textiles, shoemaking — travel south and then offshore to seek lower production costs. The paper industry continues to consolidate as mills close and ownership moves overseas. This has precipitated a rapid decline in the iconic rural logging industry, with Maine’s extensive forest lands facing an uncertain future.

The nature of work has also changed dramatically over the decades, moving away from production and manufacturing to service- and knowledge-based economies. Part-time work, multiple jobs, and declining benefits have become the norm. These trends provide real income challenges to Maine’s rural workforce: fewer job openings, mismatched skills to the new jobs emerging, and insufficient income to save for retirement.

The Great Recession of 2008 disproportionately affected rural areas. Many observers feel that rural America has never really emerged from that cataclysmic event. In fact, the USDA confirms that 85% of counties across the U.S. that experience persistent poverty (high levels for three or more decades) are rural. The recession made it near impossible to escape these long-term repercussions. As wealthier regions of the country — Greater Portland among them —  experienced significant job gains and “economic expansion” after the recession, Maine’s rural counties emerged as among the most “distressed” in the country.


What does it take to build a vibrant economy in a region? The governor’s new 10-year economic plan cites several infrastructure requirements: broadband connectivity, good schools, accessible health care, research and higher education institutions. Child care, training, housing, transportation, and healthy environments are also necessary to support the workforce and bolster communities. These infrastructure elements are, however, the very things in short supply in rural areas.

While the challenges are huge for our rural counties, they are not insurmountable. A 2018 Brookings Institution  report notes that rural areas may not have to build up all of those infrastructure components but may be near enough to vibrant small cities or urban areas to benefit from them. Additionally, rural areas have a rich history of entrepreneurship and small business development. The U.S. Census Bureau found that non-metropolitan counties had much higher rates of self-employed business owners than metropolitan counties, with higher rates of sustainability and success.

The governor’s economic plan could inject some needed energy into rural areas. Several featured growth centers build on rural assets and geography — innovative wood composites using Maine forest products, energy development (wind, solar, tidal) that would be constructed in rural and coastal settings, safe and sustainable food systems built on Maine’s growing small farm sector, and, of course, the outdoor recreation industry that is such an integral part of Maine’s “brand.”

Perhaps we — those of us who live in rural communities and those of us who care about them — need to focus on resilience in these regions. What determines whether a community bounces back from adversity? What factors help it to survive, adapt, and grow?

Rural areas have many forms of capital to build on beyond financial:  human (those pragmatic entrepreneurs), natural, political (key leaders in the executive and legislative branches from rural areas), social, and cultural (that magnetic mixture of values and traditions that we treasure in small town Maine). Communities that lace together these assets effectively see the greatest impacts.

The way back for Maine’s rural communities will be vigorous advocacy for what they need — broadband, investment capital, education and training–to take full advantage of what they have — natural resources, local innovators, reliable workforce, and desirable communities. That is the way life should be.

Lisa Miller, of Somerville, is a former legislator who served on the health and human services and appropriations and financial affairs committees. Luisa S. Deprez is Professor Emerita of Sociology and the Edmund S. Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine. They are members of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear here monthly.

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