It’s no surprise to learn that times are tough for low-income working families in Maine — and likely will get tougher.
But policy changes on the state level could relieve some of the pressure on the people who are in the most dire straits, according to a study released Tuesday by the Maine Center for Economic Policy.
“We are living in extraordinary times right now,” said Kurt Wise, author of the study. “There are large numbers of families in Maine that are right on the edge. It’s entirely possible that these families are going to be very deeply affected by housing security, food security and basic health issues.”
One of the changes that the center recommends is to withdraw $20 million from the state’s rainy day fund and use it to provide more energy assistance to low-income households through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
“It’s already getting cold,” Wise said. “These are the kinds of emergencies the rainy day fund is designed for.”
Wise defines low-income working families as those where family members put in a full-time work effort but have an income insufficient for their needs.
There are 40,000 such families in the state, he said, with about 75,000 children. And 10,000 families earn less than the federal poverty level — $385 per week.
“These families are especially vulnerable,” Wise said. “These are the families that are on the front lines and will see the greatest, most immediate impacts.”
In Penobscot County, about 12 percent of residents live below the poverty level. More than 18 percent of Washington County residents live below the poverty level, making it the most impoverished county in the state.
“The government is not the solution to every problem that we have,” Wise said. “But it does play a crucial role.”
Other policy recommendations include:
- Increasing wages and benefits, including the minimum wage.
- Bumping up the number of parents, children and other adults who participate in MaineCare health coverage.
- Spending more money on programs such as Competitive Skills Scholarship, which helps low-income adults study for jobs in high-wage occupations.
Wise stressed that it’s not only low-income working families that are in trouble right now.
“This is an economy that’s not likely to improve over the short term,” the economic analyst said. “It’s likely to devolve over the next months. And everyone can be affected by this, not just working families.”