Bangor Daily News, July 11, 2008: Symptoms and Treatments

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Friday, July 11, 2008 – Bangor Daily News

The grim news that Washington County residents are more likely to live shorter, less healthy lives than their Maine and national counterparts is a symptom of an underlying problem: persistent poverty. It is a shocking symptom, and perhaps the worst manifestation of the chronic economic distress that plagues this region of the state.

Local and state governments and nonprofits can and must act, and they can make a difference, even if they treat the symptoms alone. Education about how smoking leads to cancer, how poor eating habits and little exercise lead to heart disease and diabetes, and how drug and alcohol abuse lead to a host of health problems must be part of that treatment. More health care infrastructure rural clinics, medical outreach, home health care should also be part of the intervention. With more access to health care at earlier ages, many of the usual killers can be turned back, or at least held at bay.

But while the appalling death rates must get immediate attention, the long-term cure is economic development. The high percentage of those living in poverty in Washington County is not a recent phenomenon. Along with Waldo County, Washington County frequently was described as the poorest county in New England, dating to the 1970s. According to U.S. census statistics, Waldo County was the poorest county in New England in 1984. State leaders might find its turn-around instructive.

While many would point to high-profile business relocations in Waldo County, such as MBNA (now Bank of America), there were other factors at work before the banking sector discovered the region. Homegrown businesses, nurtured by local government, grew and expanded, and the sudden demise of old-line industry such as poultry processing and shoe manufacturing brought in federal and state funds to revitalize the downtown of the county seat, Belfast, and construct industrial parks outside town.

With the more attractive downtown and a waterfront that catered to recreational uses, Waldo County began to see tourism, then, beginning in the late 1980s, retirees from southern New England and the mid-Atlantic states.

While the gentrification was not always welcomed warmly, its positive economic influence cannot be denied. New houses were built and old ones elaborately renovated, tradespeople were hired, and pension checks were deposited in local banks.

When coastal real estate prices soared in recent years, some financially comfortable retirees began to settle near the coast in the Lubec and Machias areas, locals have noted. This should be encouraged.

Finally, the impact of government spending cannot be dismissed. Long-term rural poverty has been mitigated before; in 1964, the Appalachia region was targeted by the federal government for assistance, and while the area did not boom, standards of living were raised. Perhaps the recently approved Northern Border Commission, long championed by Rep. Michael Michaud, can help in this regard.

This latest bad news about Washington County should energize those who care about its fate, not lead to more hand-wringing or finger-pointing.

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