The Universal Notebook: Well-being in Maine isn’t what it once was

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For last week’s column about ways Gov. Paul LePage has made life harder for Maine people, I talked to several people in social service agencies. One of them suggested that, as a measure of misery in Maine, I cite the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index, in which Maine dropped from No. 4 in 2016 to No. 24 in 2017.

I didn’t do so because I was skeptical of the index, which is based on 2.5 million surveys.

But what could have happened for Mainers’ sense of well-being (defined generally as liking what you do, where you live, being in good health, being economically secure and having loving relationships) to plummet so precipitously in one year?

My guess: President Donald J. Trump.

Trump’s unfortunate election seems to have cast a pall over 2017. Residents of 20 other states recorded a decline in their sense of well-being, the largest one-year decline in the 10-year history of the index. But Maine’s fall from wellness was worse than any other state’s except Alaska, which fell from No. 2 to No. 25. Maybe that’s because you can see Russia from there.

Sanguine citizens of South Dakota, Vermont, Hawaii, Minnesota and North Dakota, by the way, had the highest well-being scores, while the sad sacks in Oklahoma, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and West Virginia posted the lowest. Apparently, deep poverty and heavy industry don’t make for happy people.

When I contacted Gallup to ask for an explanation of Maine’s 4-to-24 fall, I was informed that our 2016 score was a “historical outlier.” Between 2008 and 2015, Maine came in anywhere from 15th to 25th. So just when I thought widespread opiate use might be creating a false sense of well-being in the Pine Tree State, it seems our fourth-place finish was just an aberration.

“This is a good example,” Dan Witters, the index research director, said in an email, “of why it is always very important in survey research to evaluate change in a broader, long-term context than in simple year-over-year changes.”

Portland-South Portland, by the way, did very well in a companion survey of community well-being in 186 urban areas, coming in 16th, right between El Paso, Texas, and Lancaster, Pennsylvania. That makes sense since Portland is annually on some list of the foodiest, gayest, greenest, hippest, coolest and most livable places in the United States. The happiest-healthiest community according to the index? Marco Island, Florida. (Well, duh.)

The saddest-sickest place in these United States? Fort Smith, an urban area on the Arkansas-Oklahoma border, plagued by low wages and poor health. Once the last civilized outpost on the western frontier, Fort Smith is known, if it is known at all (I had never heard of it) for the 19th century saying, “There is no law west of St. Louis and no God west of Fort Smith.”

I am skeptical by nature, but I learned not to trust surveys and polls on Nov. 8, 2016, when all the polls told me the country was about to do the right thing and elect America’s first woman president. Instead, we got Trump.

I attribute his last-minute win to Russian hackers stealing emails and meddling in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, where a combined 80,000 votes were the entire difference in the election. If Trump is not guilty of collusion, money laundering and obstruction of justice, someone in his Russophile campaign sure as heck is.

Pollsters seem to think what happened is that Trump supporters simply flew under the radar. If you’re holed up in a bunker with an AR-15 and a lifetime’s supply of toilet paper waiting for ISIS to invade Fort Smith, chances are pretty good no pollster is going to get your number.

I try to console myself with the thought that I am actually in the majority, even if it doesn’t seem to make a darn bit of difference. I am not only one of the majority who voted for Hillary Clinton, I am also among the 97 percent of Americans who support universal background checks for gun sales, the 83 percent who support a waiting period for gun sales, the 80 percent who support allowing dreamers to stay in this country, the 67 percent who favor a ban on assault weapons, the 61 percent who disapprove of Trump’s planned military parade, the 57 percent who support a woman’s right to choose and the 56 percent who think Trump’s wall is as stupid as his parade.

Come Nov. 6, I am counting on a Big Blue Wave of Democratic wins to wash away the Trump virus and restore the sense of well-being we lost when he won. But this time, I will not pay the slightest attention to the polls – unless, of course, they tell me I’m in the majority.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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