Will Maine ever again party like it’s 1989?

Have you heard Chris Soper’s song about the Bucksport mill closing? Give it a listen. It’s about Verso’s decision to close its mill, but tugs at a larger national issue.

The Washington Post last week started a series on America’s middle class starting with a piece titled, “Why America’s middle class is lost.

It opens with a focus on the downfall of the aerospace industry in Downey, California. (I grew up about 25 miles from there, incidentally.)

They’ve waited more than a decade in Downey. They’ve tried all the usual tricks to bring good-paying jobs back to the 77-acre plot of dirt where once stood a factory that made moon landers and, later, space shuttles. Nothing brought back the good jobs.

Those jobs aren’t coming back. Not at the old North American Rockwell plant, and not in thousands of similarly socked towns.

At the same time, there are indications of economic recovery at the national and state levels, but that’s not coming with a commensurate rise in wages for most people.

Soper told BDN writer Emily Burnham: “I think people struggle through life, and every day they see the big dog win every time, and the little guy gets pushed aside,” said Soper. “They make $60 million off scrap metal they send to China, and we’re sitting here trying to figure out how to feed our kids.”

The numbers bear out that feeling.

The Washington Post’s interactive map shows median incomes in a majority of U.S. counties were at their highest 15 or more years ago. In Maine, median incomes were highest in nine of 16 counties — Washington, Aroostook, Penobscot, Piscataquis, Somerset, Kennebec, Franklin, Androscoggin, Sagadahoc and York — in the year 1989.

Nationally, in the past 25 years, the Post reported corporate profits have doubled their share of the U.S. economy and the country’s total output has grown 83 percent, also adjusting for inflation.

The Washington Post estimated purchasing power of the middle-point Maine home is just slightly higher than in 1969 and below 1989 and 1999. Cumberland County is the only in the state to have the median household wage peak in 2009.

The story, of course, is different town-by-town.

Based on 2012 American Community Survey statistics, the real estate brokerage Movoto found the Hancock County town of Harborside has the third-highest income per capita of any ZIP code in the country. Those outliers are found on the other end of the spectrum, too.

Local economies dependent on manufacturing industries have struggled in many cases, like the Maine mill towns hit this year with closures and turbulence in the industry and the economy.

After the Rockwell plant closed in Downey, officials in that California city drafted an economic development plan that concluded the plant closure “exposed how much of the local economy relied up on the aerospace industry as a major employer and customer base for other businesses,” advocating for building a more diverse base of businesses.

Michael Hillard, an economist who’s writing a book about Maine’s paper industry, spoke to that change in Maine in an October interview.

“Industries don’t last in one place forever,” Hillard said. “Paper is a great example of this. The industry takes root and prospers for 100 years and then the ground shifts from underneath it and then it’s all gone… you’re taking the communities that were really prosperous and cutting the heart of them and you have a shell of what it once was.”

That appears a not-so-far-off description of the country’s middle class, too.

Darren Fishell

About Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.