Washington-Hancock Community Agency assesses money struggles

Posted Dec. 16, 2008, at 9:41 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 10:54 a.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — When Vanessa Young of Cherryfield got a 40-hour-per-week job, she thought her financial worries were behind her.

But the single mother from Cherryfield still struggles.

“We’re living paycheck to paycheck. I look at my son and he’s going to be driving soon, and I wonder how am I going to buy him a car or send him to college,” she said at a press conference Tuesday, where the Washington-Hancock Community Agency announced results of a report identifying the needs of lower-income residents.

“I wonder how we’re going to heat the house this winter,” Young said.

She’s behind on most of her bills, and she finds it hard to get much help from the state.

“I’m $9 over every guideline — Maine Care, food stamps,” Young said. “One of the problems is health insurance. I have coverage through work, but my son is not covered because I can’t afford the $150 every two weeks out of my paycheck.

“If I made $9 a week less, I could get food stamps,” she said.

Mike Hatt’s situation is a little different. He has been out of work for a year after being laid off from a job that was paying $11 an hour, relatively good wages for Washington County, he said. His wife is on disability and they are helping to care for parents and grandparents. The family qualifies for assistance, but he said it is still a daily challenge to get by.

He makes his way “by the grace of God,” but it gets harder every day, he said.

Hatt said he’s not alone and that a lot of people are living in poverty.

“A lot of people get depressed because they don’t know what to do,” he said. “Alcohol is a big issue. A lot of people just don’t know where to turn.”

Young and Hatt were among the 362 people who were interviewed as part of a comprehensive needs assessment study conducted over the past year by WHCA. The agency released the results of the study in a report Tuesday.

The results of the assessment will help the agency to change existing programs and create new programs to better meet those needs, according to WHCA executive director Tim King.

The interviews raised a number of concerns, a key one focusing on the lack of quality jobs in the two counties. Not surprisingly, the top area of need cited in the survey had to do with money.

“People said they didn’t have enough money,” King said.

Sixty-nine percent of those responding to the survey said they did not have enough money to pay monthly bills, according to the report.

In addition, he said, those people often don’t know how to change that situation.

“People often have difficulty being able to access services or programs that could help them reduce their costs or increase their income,” he said.

The other top five needs were:

— Financial literacy: 49 percent do not know how to manage a budget, the report said. According to King, the existing economic system, which encourages living on credit, preys upon that deficiency.

— Health care: Many lack health insurance, and those who are covered often have a high deductible. A medical incident that taps that deductible can create financial turmoil in their lives, King said.

— Legal assistance: While those surveyed don’t necessarily need a lawyer because they have been arrested, King said, they often do need someone to help them with the process of dealing with state and federal agencies.

— Transportation: A lot of people don’t have reliable transportation, which is a critical factor in a mainly rural area such as Washington and Hancock counties. That situation was exacerbated earlier this year when the price of gasoline skyrocketed.

Most of the data for the survey were gathered during the past year before the financial crisis hit the country and the world. The financial collapse likely will just make things worse, said WHCA board member Craig Schoppe, who also served on the Needs Assessment Committee.

The survey made a few things clear to board members. One of the challenges the survey poses is for WHCA to match programs with the identified needs and to see if those programs result in a measurable reduction in the number of people living in poverty, said board member Barbara Arter.

In addition, she said, WHCA needs to become more of an advocate for those people, working with other agencies to present these needs to legislators and policymakers in the state.

King noted that, in these times, the agency cannot do the work by itself.

“We need to work together, particularly with other nonprofits, to provide better access to services to the people we serve,” he said. “Also, there are a large number of volunteer community groups who could be an asset that we as a nonprofit could work better with to provide assistance to people. We need to look more to the local community groups.”

The WHCA board already has begun a strategic planning process that will identify specific goals that target the needs identified in the survey. King said staff members will change programs or develop new programs to better address those goals. He said those changes could begin to take place within the next three or four months.

The survey contains a lot of statistical information about residents in the two counties that could be of use to other agencies, organizations and groups, according to officials. The Needs Assessment Report is available on the agency’s Web site at www.whcacap.org or by calling Ellen Hathaway at 664-2424, ext. 4452.

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