New Census data highlights cracks in the economy – even before COVID

New data released Thursday by the US Census Bureau show that many Mainers were already experiencing hardship before the COVID-19 pandemic and revealed the tenuous nature of the economic gains the state enjoyed in 2019.  

The data from the American Community Survey offers a snapshot of economic and social conditions in the country in 2019. The data reflects the world as it was before the pandemic and ensuing recession spurred record-shattering unemployment and increased hardship for millions of Americans and tens of thousands of Mainers.  

The 2019 data is important for policymakers, as it shows the precarious nature of even the relatively strong economy Mainers enjoyed in 2019. Recent events will only have made this situation more difficult. 

Two headline indicators are particularly relevant: 

  • Maine in 2019 saw a slight improvement, less than 1 percentage point, in the official poverty rate compared with 2018. Still, one in nine Mainers — or roughly 142,000 people — experienced poverty last year.i These Mainers were already struggling to afford basic necessities, such as housing, even before the pandemic.  Widespread layoffs as a result of the pandemic and the expiration of temporary federal relief has worsened the situation for struggling Mainers, and likely led to many others also falling into poverty.  
  • Access to health care – which has taken on increased urgency during the global pandemic – also remained out of reach for many in 2019. Despite the implementation of Medicaid expansion in 2019, the share of Mainers without health insurance remained flat from 2018, at 8 percent. That means roughly 92,000 Mainers lacked health coverage last year. Medicaid enrollment has continued to expand in Maine through the pandemic, fulfilling its role as a critical safety net. Yet tens of thousands have likely experienced disruption in their insurance coverage, especially if they lost their employer-sponsored insurance. 

Another recent data release by the US Department of Agriculture showed that food insecurity remained a problem in Maine last year. According to the Department, 12 percent of Maine households were foodinsecure in the period from 2017 through 2019. That represents 67,500 households that struggled to buy sufficient, nutritious food 

The new data from the Census Bureau are a powerful reminder that too many Mainers were left behind even when the economy seemed to be moving along smoothly. During a pandemic and recession unlike any seen in the last century, it’s become even tougher for struggling families to get a foothold in the economy.  

Trends in demand for food assistance, housing assistance, and other social support programs show that Mainers still need help to survive this unprecedented crisis. The first federal aid package in March helped offset some of these hardships, but many of those programs have expired. Without more immediate federal action, the recession will deepen, and suffering will get worse. 

It’s critical that the federal government enact a new round of COVID relief that helps struggling Mainers cover basic necessities, provides adequate benefits to laid-off workers, and distributes much-needed emergency funding to help states and municipalities fuel the recovery. 


[1] For individuals, the poverty level was an income of just under $12,500 for the year. For a family of four, the poverty level was $25,750.