Monday, May 10, 2010

Ostrich: Let’s worsen the demographic winter by advocating “family unfriendly” views

Recent events have spurred a good deal of discussion as to whether Brunswick, in any form you choose to think of it, is “business unfriendly.”  The Ostrich, ever seeking to build loyalty among its potential readership, chose to skewer selected town officials on the subject, while having ignored the subject of economic development approximately 99.44% of the time.

Now, if we are to judge by an item they ran last week, the Ostrich is advocating for a family unfriendly world view.  We are completely flummoxed as to how they see this as contributing to a “sustainable” future for those of us still left here.

Why do we say this?  Because of a “featured” commentary they ran this past Wednesday (May 5, 2010) that praised the concept of childless marriage (or women, to be more specific.)  What a delightful column to run as we approached Mother’s Day. 

Sometimes we think they’ve lost their bearings over there; other times we’re absolutely sure of it.  We have no doubt that numerous readers were offended by the column, and that others in our region cheered it.  Count this reporter as offended on behalf of his wife and his two children.

The commentary was supplied by a non-profit organization called “Blue Ridge Press,” which from all appearances operates a good distance away from Brunswick.  The author similarly lacks local reader credentials.

So we must assume that Ostrich editors chose to run the item because it reflects their views, just as when they choose to run syndicated columns by NY Times columnists like Paul Krugman.  Or when they lift work by others with whom they agree and run them in the editorial position.

You won’t find the commentary to which we refer on the Ostrich web page.  But you can find it here.

A few years back, this reporter authored a lengthy “report” on the circumstances surrounding the plans to build a new elementary school in Brunswick.  It included discussion of Maine demographics, and that section is appended below for the interested student.  (Or, for the really interested student, you can contact us by email, and we’ll forward you the entire report.)

In discussing worldwide demographics, this pithy comment by noted author Mark Steyn in his extremely insightful book “America Alone” was cited:

“There is no precedent in human history for economic growth on declining human capital – and that’s before anyone invented unsustainable welfare systems.”

We provide these two passages from the ‘BlueridgePress” item for your edification:

At fifty-something I am an adult, but not a mother. And though some will gasp in horror, I consider that to be my greatest achievement as a conservationist, although finding the first saw-whet owl ever reported in my part of Virginia ranks pretty high, too.

So even though the birthrate in America is historically low, curbing it further would be a good place to begin when trying to save the world. I am pleased to do my part.

Old Europe is dying demographically; America is on the verge.  Maine in particular is jumping off the demographic cliff.

Why on earth the Ostrich would choose to encourage accelerating the very real ‘death’ of a state that has such “quality of place,” and must be the envy of the nation (if not the world), is lost on us.

Unless you connect all the dots, in which case, it makes perfect sense.  Because as they see it, there is nothing more ‘sustainable’ than an ‘environment’ devoid of all human life.

The Maine Population Context

Brunswick is a town of about 22,000 in a state of roughly 1.3 million people. This population includes about 1600 Bowdoin students, and those military individuals and families who reside inside our borders. These two elements aside, population changes in Brunswick depend on the larger factors and influences affecting Maine’s population.

Maine does not present a “growth oriented” profile in population demographics. According to 2005 U.S. Census Bureau figures, Maine is now the #1 oldest state in the nation; it ranked 4th just 6 years ago. And the population is growing older rapidly. By 2020, seniors will make up 21% of our population, compared to 14% in 2000.

At the same time, 2005 Census figures show Maine ranks 50th of all the states in percentage of its population under age 18, at 21.4%. This younger group is obviously the source for school enrollment, and is also the group that would begin family formation in the future.

More troubling is that the structure of state population over time is trending in the wrong direction. Young people have been declining as a part of the population for some time, and projections are that the shift will continue at a disturbing pace. Laurie Lachance, former Maine State Economist, and now head of the Maine Development Foundation, points out that “Maine’s school age population is in decline as well as college age and young working age.”

It is well known that the “boomer generation” is coming of retirement age, and effecting social and demographic trends everywhere. The closure of BNAS will exacerbate this situation, since the military and their dependents fall entirely in the lower half of the age distribution.

This age distribution is overlaid on a state population growing at a snail’s pace, and that pace is getting slower. Maine’s population growth peaked in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and for more than a century, we have grown at a slower pace than the country overall.

From 2000-2005, Maine’s population grew by an average of about 8,660 per year; from 2005-2006, growth slowed to only 3,354. In that same year, Cumberland County grew by 400. In view of the retirement boom, the implications for schools are disturbing.

These discouraging figures provide the overall population context for this study. We are most interested, of course, in what the outlook is for the school age population. These figures are no more encouraging. Maine’s K-12 enrollment peaked at 218,600 in 1995-1996, and has been declining steadily since.

The 2006 figure is 200,200, a decline of nearly 10%. Education Commissioner Susan Gendron, while promoting the need for school district consolidation recently, cited changing state demographics as the driving factor. She said Maine will continue to lose an average of 3,000 per year in enrollment for “the next several years.” If that figure were pro-rated by town population, it would translate to an annual decline of 50 students in Brunswick. Department of Education data has statewide enrollment declining to 180,000 within a decade.

Among other things, average family size is a factor in this decline. Not long ago, large families were the norm. I am the youngest of 5 children. My siblings have 25 children between them and vast numbers of grandchildren. We have two children, and each is married with two children. How often do you see a young family with 4, 5, or 6 children? Years ago, these families filled schools; now they are a distinct rarity.

We must abandon any notion that growth is continuous, natural, and dependable. Especially in school age youngsters. The evidence says just the opposite, the trends are in the wrong direction, and there is nothing on the horizon that can be expected to turn this around. Quite the contrary, actually; there are forces at work that will likely make things worse.

The most vocal activists in Maine are those who are fundamentally anti-growth for one reason or another. Maine has nearly the worst economy and business climate in the nation, and our region will be hit with an economic calamity when BNAS closes. The age group least affected by these factors are retirees, who appear to be the only growing demographic in the state.

Many believe that Brunswick is somehow immune from these facts and trends. A recent commentary in the Times Record contained this quote: “With base redevelopment and the physical attractiveness of this area — proximity to Portland and Boston — the signs are already in place for enormous growth (emphasis mine) that forward-thinking people have already recognized.”

I know of no credible evidence or logic for accepting that Brunswick is poised for enormous growth, nor more importantly, of a civic will to welcome such growth. If public discussion of such matters in recent years is any indication, the exact opposite is the case.

It’s been said that “demographics is destiny.” To the degree that’s true, at least as it relates to student populations, the enrollment “destiny” for Brunswick portends a significant decline, consistent with figures in the 2004 enrollment projection based on State Planning Office estimates and Education Department statements this year.

If you think such population trends are not credible, be aware that declines in population growth, some far worse than those just described, are common around the world. In Europe in particular, Spain, Germany, Italy, Greece and others are literally dying off; their populace is generating far, far fewer births than necessary to offset death rates.

A bit of reading and research will astonish you. “America Alone” by Mark Steyn is one very good and current resource. In it, the following quote appears:

“There is no precedent in human history for economic growth on declining human capital – and that’s before anyone invented unsustainable welfare systems.”

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