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The Real Maine



White people, boats, and high end camping stores. All things that imply wealth and affluence, and all things commonly used to describe one state in particular. Maine. There is a commonly held idea that those who live in Maine look and live like the people who visit Maine. Upper middle class to rich, dressed in L.L. Bean or maybe Vineyard Vines, living on the coast. Let me just say this: that’s like saying everyone in DC looks like and lives like a senator or corporate lawyer. Its not even remotely close to the real thing.


Maine is poor. Like really poor. It was ranked by Forbes magazine to be in the top 10 poorest states in the US, right up there with contenders like Louisiana and Mississippi. Most  people there work multiple jobs, if they can, to support their families. Maine has one of the highest military enlistment rates in the US, because for most young people, there aren’t many other options. Maine used to have thriving blue collar industries revolving around manufacturing and sawmills, but a very large number of those collapsed during the recession.


A house one would typically expect to see in Maine

A house one would typically expect to see in Maine


Issues about Maine hit close to home with me. Like many white people, I go up to Maine every summer, and have been doing so my entire life. Unlike some however, my family doesn’t own or rent a lake house, nor do we stay in Bar Harbor or Freeport. We go to visit my grandmother in rural western Maine, in a small town named Peru. Its about half an hour drive to the nearest grocery store (a Walmart) and an hour from any major town that would be put on a map of the general area. The majority of houses are single story ranches, made of simple wood. Nothing is extravagant, and amenities are few and far between.

A one story ranch house common throughout Maine

A one story ranch house common throughout Maine


Beyond Peru, I also work at a summer camp outside of a town near Bethel, called Bryant Pond 4-H Camp. The camp is a not-for-profit owned by the state through the University of Maine, where the biggest emphasis is on affordability. The staff there gets paid significantly less than minimum wage (it’s legal because it is a government business) so that costs stay as low as possible. Around 90% of the kids I had each week got scholarships, either partial or full ride, so their parents could send them there.


Many of the kids there talk about how they dream not of becoming astronauts or doctors, but of being game wardens (like police, but for recreational laws like hunting and fishing) or joining the military. They are practical dreams that require little need for expensive four year colleges they can’t afford and could help support their parents. They are dreams that don’t involve getting out of their situation, but instead just getting by.  Maine isn’t a place where there are options like there are in DC or Maryland. Many kids opt to go to trade schools instead of traditional high schools, so that they can learn practical skills and enter the workforce early, even though the unemployment rate for residents aged 20-24 is at 36%.


I realize I made the state of everything sound pretty awful, but here’s the thing. Maine is getting better, along with everywhere else. The people there aren’t living in squalor, but their lives are hard, much harder than you would think. Maine is not the people who visit there during the summer. It doesn’t look like they all stepped off of a boat from the Georgetown Harbor, in whatever preppy outfit you may think up. It’s blue collar, working class people who are just trying to get by in life.