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Business and Economy

Measures of Growth Report: 'Impressive' Pre-K In Maine, But Racial Income Equity A Red Flag

The Maine Economic Growth Council has released its annual Measures of Growth, a report card of what the state has accomplished economically and what it still has to work on.

Yellow Light Breen, president of the Maine Development Foundation, which administers the Growth Council’s work, spoke with Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz about the report.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Gratz: Each year, this report details “Gold Star” accomplishments and “Red Flag” warnings. How about reviewing some of those to start?

Breen: One of the great things about Measures of Growth is it’s focused on the long-term issues that will drive Maine’s economic prosperity. So this year, the three Gold Stars include:

— Pre-K education. We have an impressively high rate of Maine children who are participating in public school pre K. — In terms of safety, Maine has a ridiculously low crime rate compared to a lot of states and the nation. — And air quality. We had one of the best years ever last year in terms of air quality.

These are the kinds of things that draw people to move to Maine. We have seen an uptick in people moving to Maine before the pandemic. So when we talk about people fleeing to Maine in search of safety and community, Measures of Growth tracks that and gave several gold stars this year.

As you mentioned, one of those gold stars was for pre-kindergarten education. I’m curious as to why that’s important economically to the state.

We unfortunately know with astounding certainty that you can project who will graduate from high school, who will flourish after high school in higher education or in the workforce, with whether or not they’re able to read on grade level by grade three. And what drives that is their readiness to begin school, and their literacy and numeracy early, early on. The biggest bang for the buck, and the best place to intervene, is way at the beginning of that whole pipeline.

Now, it’s interesting, the report also seems to say that any educational advantage that we’re getting from pre-K is not yet being sustained. Fourth grade reading was still trailing the regional average and eighth grade math is a Red Flag for us.

The pre-K thing is a more recent phenomenon, which is why we wanted to celebrate progress. There has been a lot of dialogue and investment in this state about that issue over the last 5-10 years. We certainly hope, to your point, that then carries through the rest of the pipeline. And we’re seeing it then in middle school, high school and beyond.

The Red Flags in the report also span the spectrum. We have six Red Flags that the council highlighted this year. One is a brand new metric, what we call racial and ethnic income equity. We asked ourselves in the face of this point that we’re all in as a society of wrestling with the history of racism and its impacts today, what does the data say? Unfortunately, it says that all of the groups of color in Maine, taken together, are earning 39% less on average than white Mainers.

Well, I kind of wonder too, though, if we’re talking about racial and ethnic income equity, that second word there is interesting to me. How large an issue is that for the state? You know, traditionally, Maine does not have a very diverse population.

In this decade, virtually 100% of the population growth in our state has come from racial and ethnic minority groups. So if we’re serious about wanting to have a workforce in the future, and wanting to have an opportunity to keep our communities, businesses and schools vibrant in the future, the reality is that a huge proportion of that is now coming from a much more diverse set of Mainers.

The report indicates Maine’s access to basic broadband connectivity improved, but subscriptions still lag the national average. I’m guessing the latter is a function of its cost. But is there also not a question of how much access Mainers have to higher-speed broadband?

I think the current situation, with multiple people in a household schooling or working remotely at the same time, is putting pressure on the top end of broadband. So we made a lot of progress at what you might call basic broadband. But at those upper ends, it continues to be a big lag. That’s going to really drive our opportunity going forward. And that’s an area where you take something that has been a longstanding issue, and the pandemic kind of exponentially multiplies the impact on the awareness of that same issue.

Again, in part because of the cost, is that something that’s likely to be solved in the private sector? Or is that a place where the state really needs to make some heavy investments?

It’s got to be both. We don’t want to spend public dollars subsidizing things that the private sector would do. And so I think public-private partnerships are key, where we can work with providers or multiple providers to say, who is willing to reach the most households at the highest speeds with the least subsidy.

One of the other Red Flags that has been around for a while involves research and development. And it kind of makes me wonder, because it’s been there for a bit, whether there’s anything more state government could be doing that would either move Maine closer to the benchmark or create a climate for business to scale up its research and development efforts.

I think there’s a few things here. One is again, that the pandemic has magnified why this is so important. Some of the public-private partnerships between the state and things like IDEXX Laboratories, the work of Abbott Labs, with their rapid test, Jackson Lab and, of course, Puritan Products with the swabs, we’ve seen that these nodes of world-class R&D are crucial in these crises in addition to being crucial all the time. We need to have companies that will invest in R&D here on the private side, and yet have continued public sector investment.

I’m not naive enough to assume that in the middle of a recession, we’re gonna find new resources in the state budget. Hopefully, we can stay the course on a solid baseline level, and really encourage companies like IDEXX, JAX and others to want to continue to make money in their headquarters so that the bulk of their R&D spending stays in the state as well.

Well, of course, this report mostly looks at pre-pandemic numbers. Is it reasonable to expect the next year’s report is going to look worse than this year’s?

There’s no question, although it’s going to be interesting to then untangle the effects of the one-time stimulus that was done earlier this year, or if there was a one-time bubble in second homes and home prices. But yeah, it’s probably going to reset the baseline downward in a bunch of areas. But it’s not going to change the underlying issue that talent, innovation and thoughtful investment and infrastructure is going to give us the fighting chance to return to prosperity and move forward.