Sunday, April 02, 2006

a really, really long post in which I step on my soapbox about Maine's awful economy

I've recently talked to a lot of people roughly my age (early 20's to mid 30's, or thereabouts) about money in Maine, and about how hard it is to get by in this state. I've been thinking about it as far as Brett and I are concerned, too.

To begin, I'll tell you what our story has been. Brett and I moved here in late 2003 with several thousand dollars in the bank (money we'd saved when we were both working full-time in Seattle) and no consumer debt (zero credit card debt, no car loans, just a few student loans).

Living in Seattle, we made decent money. Not enough to make us rich, but definitely enough to where we were very comfortable. Brett was making just around $11 per hour ($22,880 per year) as a security guard, I was making about $28,000 per year as an admin, with great health benefits that cost around $120 per month for both of us to be covered completely for medical, dental, and vision.

We went out to dinner frequently, we bought organic, we treated ourselves to coffee and bagels almost every morning and lunch out several times a week. Brett could afford to splurge on records every now and then, and I could go to Nordstrom and buy a pair of shoes without giving it second thought. We were able to buy some furniture, and go on a few short weekend trips -- all paid for by what we brought home each month.

On top of all of that, we managed to put away almost all of Brett's paycheck during the months we were married and living in Seattle. Combining that with a nest egg of money we'd received as wedding gifts, we had a nice little chunk of change in the bank, probably between 3 and 5 months worth of expenses, when we moved out here.

And then we arrived in Maine.

I got work right away, making a paltry $9 per hour working as an admin assistant. (A $10,000 per year pay cut from what I'd made at a similar job in Seattle -- not counting what was taken out in income taxes, which Washington doesn't have.)

Brett worked in a coffee shop for a while, making about $6.25 per hour plus tips, which were maybe another $1-$2 per hour. (Before working as a security guard, he had worked as a barista in Seattle, making about $9 per hour, plus about $3-$4 per hour in tips. Pretty big difference from here to there.)

Despite this drop in income, we were paying the same in cost of living expenses. Not a good combination. Things got really, really tight. That only got worse when I lost my job in March 2004.

We were able to wing it for a month or so until I found work. Thank goodness for those savings (which were eaten up then) and the tax return. That was the first time we had to rely on the credit card for some basic expenses, if I recall.

The next job I had paid a little better. I was making closer to what I had been making in Seattle, which helped for a while. We did ok during the summer months, when Brett could work full-time, but when he went back to school each semester and had to cut his hours, things got really tight.

At my current job, I make even less now than I did at the job I had before this one -- right now, I make roughly 11% less than I did in Seattle. At his current job, Brett makes the most he has in Maine, but it's still about 18% less than he did in Seattle.

Our cost of living has gone up, too, since we moved here. We had to buy a car (when we hadn't needed one in Seattle) just to get around the area, since the public transportation system is a joke. That means not only a car payment, but money spent on gas, tolls, insurance, and maintenance. We pay through the nose for heating oil (at around $2 per gallon for a 275 gallon tank...well, let's just say it was freezing in our house this winter). Our electric bill is now about 5 times what it has been in any place we have ever lived in.

It's really discouraging. On top of all of that, healthcare costs just for me are about $170 per month, for medical only. To add Brett on would double that, which is something we just can't afford. So he has a catastrophic policy through his school, and we just pray nothing happens to him.

I've drawn a few conclusions about our experience. Most of the people I've talked to about this agreed with those conclusions, which are:
-- The wages in Maine are virtually unlivable when compared to the cost of living
-- If someone is from away, it's likely they moved here with money in the bank and perfect credit and now have massive credit card debt and little or no savings
-- Money is a constant worry, from how to pay the bills (or picking which bills get paid this month and which don't) to how to afford food and gas for the week
-- Many people never thought they'd be in this position, fretting about how to pay the bills and concerned about how it will affect their credit. They always considered themselves to be financially savvy and able to make sound choices about money
-- The chances of buying a house in this inflated market are slim-to-none
-- If a person plans to stay in Maine, there is no hope of this situation ever getting better

This is a huge problem. No wonder young people are leaving Maine. They can't afford to stay here!

To clarify: most of the people I have talked to, not to mention Brett and me, are living frugally. Very, very frugally. Few dinners out, few extravagent purchases, few vacations -- if any. It's not as though we're spending irresponsibly or are abusing credit to get what we want now. On the contrary, we use credit for things like groceries, gas, school supplies, plane tickets to a family member's wedding...that probably being the most extravagant purchase invovlving the credit card. (And how can you tell your cousin, "No, I can't be a groomsman for you because we can't afford to come for your special day, even though you took off work and took the time to come to ours." I guess some would say that that should be your answer if finances are that tight, but as most people know, family politics are more complicated than that, and not coming to a cousin's wedding could have more far-reaching consequenses within the family than it might appear at first glance.)

The financial aspect of life in Maine is a huge part of why we're moving back to Seattle. We have dug ourselves into a really scary hole of debt and financial instability since we've been here. That's something I never thought I'd say, but it's true. At least we have the hope of getting out of it, with a lot of hard work and sacrifice, once we're back in Seattle. We're the lucky ones since we actually have a way out.

Many of our friends and acquaintances won't leave; they can't leave. Their families are here, their careers are here, they are invested here. One man I talked to moved here from the DC area a few years ago. He experienced a situation very similar to ours (no debt, plenty of money, etc) and now he's in the same boat we are (deep in debt, making too little to cover the bills). He said that he's thought about moving, but his parents live here now, his girlfriend is here, and her family is here. He doesn't want to live thousands of miles away from them. So the choice for him, like many others, seems to be: abandon family to find financial stability, or abandon the thought of financial stability to be near family.

It's an awful Catch-22.

So much of the data relating to this topic is anecdotal, although I did some Internet research and found some data from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as well as the Maine State Housing Authority (MSHA).

I did a little research and put t his chart together, comparing the Median Household Income and Median Housing Cost for Seattle (according to a 2004 HUD report) with that of Cumberland County (according to a 2004 MSHA report).

I think it's pretty telling.
Notice that the Median Household Income (MHI) for Seattle is 56 percent higher than that of Cumberland County. 56 percent! That's almost double the income here in Maine!

And then notice the rental amounts. (A note: I couldn't find any data comparing the exact same housing data. Seattle's is for overall housing cost and Cumberland County's is for 2-bedroom rentals. It's not exactly apples to apples, but it's the closest thing I could find.)

Seattle's Median Housing Cost (MHC) is lower (LOWER!) than that of Cumberland County, Maine.

No wonder we're all in debt up to our eyeballs and living precariously from paycheck to paycheck.

I don't really have any conclusions here, other than the obvious one: something in Maine's economy must give way. It has to. The cost of living here has far outstripped the wages. There are so few jobs that pay a livable wage. Most of them are highly-skilled jobs, either working for one of the hospitals as a pharmacist, nurse, or physician, working for the bio-medical research company IDEXX as a researcher, or working for either National Semiconductor or Fairchild Semiconductor.

Most run-of-the-mill jobs -- receptionist, admin assistant, security officer, retail, maintenance work, etc -- pay between $7 and $11 per hour. If you're lucky, you'll be in a job where you can accept tips to help supplement that. And again, if you're lucky, your job will offer some kind of health insurance, which will likely be at least 10% of your pre-tax income. If it doesn't, then you're probably out of luck. Even catastrophic insurance is extremely expensive here.

Otherwise, you'll be like most young Mainers -- working multiple jobs just to keep your nose above water. One friend of mine works 3 days per week for a chiropractor, nannies 2 days per week, works for a church for a few hours a week, works at a local juice bar one morning a week, and babysits on a regular basis. She's in almost the same position we are -- in debt, scraping by, with very little way out. And she's working FIVE jobs! On top of that, she has no health insurance, so a recent bout of the flu left her unable to work for a week and paying out of pocket for a doctor. Just another financial setback, and another common story.

I could go on, and on, and on. I have stories galore about this, of friends in the same position we're in.

It's extremely discouraging.

I'm relieved we're getting out now, before it gets any worse for us. If we stayed, even a few more months, I have no doubt we'd be in a much worse place than we are now. Granted, the cost of moving isn't cheap, but better pay a few thousand dollars (rather, put a few thousand more dollars on the credit card) and be in a much better financial place a year from now than we would be if we stayed around here, twiddling our thumbs as we watched our credit score plummet and any hope of getting out of debt in a reasonable amount of time fly out the window.

So why write all of this? Why advertise to the world our frightening financial position?

Because it needs to be talked about if anything is going to change. People in this position need to overcome the stigma associated with financial problems and stand up and say, "I cannot make it here. Something has to change." Awareness needs to increase, and legislators and business owners need to take a hard look at what they can do to improve this situation. I don't have any solutions, and I realize this kind of change can't happen overnight. But the reality is that the process needs to get started -- NOW.

Another reason to write all of this is also associated with that stigma of not talking about financial trouble. Talking to others in the same position is extremely comforting, as one acquaintance of mine said. Knowing that we're not alone. Knowing that it isn't just by "using credit unwisely" that brought us here. (If you had a choice between not getting home because you have no gas, or not buying groceries this week and putting it on the credit card, what would YOU do?)

Admitting we're in debt, admitting that the bills don't always get paid on time because it's a choice of buying gas to get to work and paying the electric bill, admitting that we're scared out of our minds about our financial position -- it is so freeing.

I think it's a basic human tendency to derive comfort through knowing you're not alone, through sharing adversity. So that's why I'm writing. Because I think it's important people stand up, not only to start the ball rolling in terms of changes to the economy, because a key part of that is realizing how widespread this is. However, it's also important that people realize that they are not alone, and that there are many people in this state struggling with the exact same things.

In this situation, not having money (and having debt) doesn't make you a bad person. It shouldn't make you a second-class citizen. I've come to realize that my person-hood is separate from my bank account, or the balance on my credit card. When things are really hard financially, and I'm feeling crushed by the debt and the inability to buy groceries or pay a bill, I remind myself that I am NOT the sum of my assets or of my debts. It helps to remember that.

Thanks for reading this far, if you made it. This turned into kind of a tirade, so I apologize for that. However, it doesn't surprise me, since this issue is a favorite soapbox of mine.

I truly hope the economic situation in Maine improves, even though we won't be here to see if it does. Our friends here deserve to have a better life than one of being crushed by debt and never seeming to make ends meet.

And with that, I'm done. I'm going to go make some chocolate pudding cake and try to forget my financial woes for a while.

*steps off soapbox*


Frank aka Shawna said...

You have NO idea how much I can relate to what you are saying. The same thing happened to me when I moved from Portland to Idaho. I am making SO much less and paying the same amount to live. It sucks. That's why I'm also biting the bullet and getting out of here while I still can. I love you Cufflink!

C said...

(wild applause)

What a great entry, Leen! I hope you can write about this in the paper before you leave--this would make a fantastic feature article.

Hailey's Tails said...

I can totally relate as well. I definitely think that you should write about this in your paper!

Jamila said...

Wow, that is scary and sad. I too think this would make a great article.

Karen said...

I can totally relate, too. My credit score was once good, and now it's, well, not so good, just from scraping by. I hope your move will make a huge difference for you!