Growing up in the St. John Valley – an area once brimming with large farming families – Nicki Ouellette always assumed she would get married and have children.
“That’s just what happens,” said Ouellette, now 32, seated next to her husband, Glenn, in the couple’s newly remodeled home on Pleasant Street in Fort Kent.
Nicki and Glenn, 36, fulfilled the first part of that unwritten social contract nine years ago by exchanging wedding vows.
But what about the kids?
The Ouellettes, like a growing number of Maine couples, statistics suggest, simply took a pass.
Maine’s population of young children has declined nearly 10 percent since 2000, according to a recently released U.S. Census Bureau report. Only Vermont and North Dakota posted quicker declines.
During that period, Maine recorded only 6,400 more births than deaths, the nation’s second-lowest natural population increase. By that measure, Maine grew faster than only West Virginia, the only state to record more deaths than births since 2000.
By 2010, Maine will be the state with the lowest percentage of people under age 18. That will hold true through 2030, according to census projections. By that time, just 18 percent of Maine’s population will be minors, down from roughly 24 percent in 2000.
“We haven’t bottomed out,” said Catherine Reilly, the state economist with the Maine State Planning Office. “And we haven’t seen any fundamental change that would lead us to doubt those trends.”
Of course, behind all the trends are people, and the decisions they make about whether to have children, where to live and what to do for a career.
For Glenn and Nicki Ouellette, the decision to stay in northern Maine was never really in doubt. Both have well-paying jobs for the area. Glenn is a parts manager at a local Ford dealership, where he has worked since high school. Nicki works in the technology department at the University of Maine Fort Kent, where the couple met.
Although comfortable financially, the couple knows that children cost money – about $190,000 to raise one child to age 18, based on national estimates.
Quitting her job to stay at home with a child would have put the couple in a tough financial spot, said Nicki, whose workplace provides the couple’s health insurance – another major factor in the couple’s decision.
“Some people might say it’s selfish,” said Glenn, who, like Nicki, enjoys being able to pick up at a moment’s notice and go to a friend’s house to play cards or hop onto one of their new four-wheelers for a summertime ride. “But it makes our lives a lot simpler.”
The immigration influence
About 30 years ago the population of Aroostook County was close to 100,000. Larger families were particularly common in the St. John Valley, with its heavy French-Catholic influence and potato farming history.
Now, with a gradual decline in farming jobs and smaller families becoming the norm nationwide, The County’s population is roughly 73,000.
Replace potato farming with the paper industry and similar circumstances exist 200 miles south in Old Town, where Mary Bagley has taught young children for 31 years.
Today’s lesson is about volcanoes, and there are 17 eager children in Bagley’s third-grade class. She slowly walks around the room to give each student a closer look at the porous rock she is holding in her hand.
“Metamorphic, igneous or sedimentary?” she asks to a chorus of “ooohs” and raised hands. Her class is one of the larger ones at the Old Town Elementary School this year, but with fewer than 20 children, it provides a good balance between individual attention and group learning, she said.
In past years, Bagley has seen much larger classes.
“It used to be that I’d have 25 in the morning and have 25 more in the afternoon,” Bagley said of her first years teaching kindergarten in the 1970s.
Since its peak in the early 1970s, school enrollment statewide is down about 70,000 students. And Old Town, like many other communities in northern and eastern Maine, has seen even more recent drops in its younger population.
Since 2000, enrollment in kindergarten through third grades dropped roughly 22 percent in Old Town, which four years ago consolidated its four smaller elementary schools into the bright, airy, new building off Stillwater Avenue.
Places like Old Town and the St. John Valley were once home to large French-Canadian families. Now, Maine’s lack of ethnic diversity has played a significant role in stunting its growth, experts say.
The French-Canadian influence and that of the immigrant Irish and Scandinavian populations once made Maine a much more diverse state – even more diverse than most of the country. Now the most recent wave of immigrants, most of whom are from Latin America and Asia, are not settling in Maine.
Immigration’s effect on an area’s youth population is often overlooked, but vitally important, said Reilly, who has studied the state’s population trends.
Immigrant and minority families tend to have more children, Reilly said. And while more diverse states have seen growth among their youngest populations, the nation’s least diverse states – including Maine and Vermont – are graying every year.
In 2000, Maine had the seventh-highest percentage of residents 65 and older. By 2010, Maine will be third in the nation, according to census projections. By 2030, Maine will be a close second to only retiree-rich Florida with seniors accounting for 27 percent of Maine’s population.
North and south
While the statistics show Maine aging and young children becoming scarcer statewide, rural Maine has borne the brunt of the decline.
While births at Maine’s larger hospitals, including Maine Medical Center in Portland and Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, have slightly increased since 2001, many rural hospitals – such as those in Calais and Presque Isle – have dropped.
Lucy Eaton Hawkins has noticed the difference. Hawkins heads the Abnaki Girl Scout Council, which oversees Scouting programs in Maine’s six northern counties.
“I’m anxious to see how we do this fall with numbers,” said Hawkins of a coming tally of the council’s membership. Hawkins has reason to be anxious – and hopeful.
Although total membership is down to about 4,500 from a high of 6,100 about 10 years ago, Hawkins has seen two consecutive years of increases.
Historically, the Scouts program has proved more popular in rural areas, where there are fewer activities available.
The Piscataquis County program for young Girl Scouts, called Brownies, was once the council’s largest with nearly 300 girls. But that was five years ago before Dexter Shoe, one of the area’s largest employers, closed. Now there are 149 girls in the program.
Economic circumstances such as those that affected Dexter have affected other Maine towns including Millinocket, where high-paying paper mill jobs once afforded workers the means to have larger families.
It’s simple: Companies close. Workers move and take their families with them.
The result is fewer women of child-bearing age, and those who are here simply aren’t having as many children.
Some, including Holly Lundquist, aren’t having any.
Less than two weeks ago, Lundquist, 33, and her husband, Dana, moved into the $260,000 house they built on Rosebud Lane in Brewer.
“We couldn’t live like we do if we had kids,” said Lundquist, who knew from her teenage years she didn’t want children and had a tubal ligation at 26.
Although she has no children, Lundquist said she did get a taste of the financial investment needed to raise one when she took care of her infant niece.
“I went out just to get a few things like diapers and pajamas and some other stuff for an overnight,” she said. “I spent 50 bucks and said to myself, ‘I don’t know how people do it.'”
That baby-sitting experience was about two years ago, and today, Lundquist makes no apologies for – and said she has no regrets about – her decision.
“I tell my friends who have kids, ‘You chose kids, I chose stuff,'” said Lundquist, whose husband has two children from a previous marriage. “I know it sounds kind of selfish, but at least I knew what I wanted.”