Almost half of young adults who grew up in Down East Maine lived elsewhere by young adulthood, the highest share in any of the state’s five regions measured in a study released Monday by the U.S. Census Bureau and Harvard University.
The national study underscores the relative rarity of long moves, with more than two-thirds of people born between 1984 and 1992 living in the same region at age 26 that they did 10 years earlier, 80 percent living within 100 miles and 90 percent within 500 miles. But it also showed that young people are far more likely to move the richer their parents were.
A trend of young people leaving rural areas has long been the subject of political and dinner-table conversations across Maine. A Whig governor cited a need to lure back the “young and vigorous” in an 1854 speech. An economic plan released in 2019 cited the need to increase the workforce by 75,000 in 10 years to counteract the effects of an aging population.
The demographics are stark in Maine’s rim counties. Aroostook County lost more than 7 percent of its population between 2010 and 2020, while Washington County lost 5 percent. One Down East economic development official said last year there were “not enough kids to replace people who are passing away.”
The Census-Harvard study bolstered that idea. It broke the country up into 700 different “commuting zones” that roughly correspond to local labor markets. Washington and Aroostook counties had their own zones, while Portland and Bangor anchored the rest of the state except for York County, which was lumped into the Manchester, New Hampshire, region.
Only 52 percent of young adults stayed in Washington County through age 26, while 58 percent stayed in Aroostook County. That compared with 67 percent in the Portland region and 62 percent around Bangor. The Manchester region stood at 65 percent.
Many of those who left did not go far. For example, nearly two-thirds of those who left Washington County stayed in Maine. More than one-third were in the adjacent Bangor area. Boston was by far the most common out-of-state destination in all areas of Maine.
Income divides were steep between regions. In Aroostook County, 61 percent of those born to parents in the lowest 20 percent of U.S. incomes remained there. Of those born into the top 20 percent of the income scale, only 40 percent stayed there. The Portland area saw a whopping 40 percent of young adults born in the highest income group move out of state.
Moves were typically the most dramatic for Aroostook County residents. Those who moved went 236 miles away on average for their jobs, which was 55 miles over the national average and roughly the driving distance between Presque Isle and Augusta. In the other regions of Maine, high rates of regional moving kept distances lower than the U.S. average.