Poverty hits rural Maine the hardest

Posted Sept. 09, 2010, at 1:20 p.m.
Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, speaks at a press conference to announce a report on the state of poverty in Maine on Thursday, September 9, 2010 in Bangor. (Bangor Daily News/Kevin Bennett)
Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, speaks at a press conference to announce a report on the state of poverty in Maine on Thursday, September 9, 2010 in Bangor. (Bangor Daily News/Kevin Bennett)
Shawn Yardley, the director of the City of Bangor's Public Health Community Service, speaks at a press conference to announce a report on the state of poverty in Maine on Thursday, September 9, 2010 in Bangor. (Bangor Daily News/Kevin Bennett)
Shawn Yardley, the director of the City of Bangor's Public Health Community Service, speaks at a press conference to announce a report on the state of poverty in Maine on Thursday, September 9, 2010 in Bangor. (Bangor Daily News/Kevin Bennett)
Tim King, President of the Maine Community Action Association and Executive Director of the Washington Hancock Community Agency, speaks at a press conference to announce a report on the state of poverty in Maine on Thursday, September 9, 2010 in Bangor. (Bangor Daily News/Kevin Bennett)
Tim King, President of the Maine Community Action Association and Executive Director of the Washington Hancock Community Agency, speaks at a press conference to announce a report on the state of poverty in Maine on Thursday, September 9, 2010 in Bangor. (Bangor Daily News/Kevin Bennett)
Dr, Ann Acheson, from the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center and  primary reseacher for the Poverty in Maine 2010 report, speaks at a press conference about findings in the report at Penquis in Bangor on Thursday, September 9, 2010. (Bangor Daily News/Kevin Bennett)
Dr, Ann Acheson, from the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center and primary reseacher for the Poverty in Maine 2010 report, speaks at a press conference about findings in the report at Penquis in Bangor on Thursday, September 9, 2010. (Bangor Daily News/Kevin Bennett)

BANGOR, Maine — Maine’s poverty rate in 2008 was slightly below the national average, but the state’s rural counties are at a much higher level, according to a study released Thursday.

The report, which was researched and prepared by the Maine Community Action Association and the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center of the University of Maine, highlights the widespread impact of the current economic recession, said MCAA president Tim King.

“The report doesn’t go into the causes of poverty and it doesn’t answer questions about what needs to be done,” he said Thursday. “That’s up to state policymakers.”

One of those policymakers, Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, said the poverty report affirms what most Mainers already know.

“The [recession] has made an already immense need greater,” she said. “But this begins to lay a roadmap and help triage the things that [the Legislature] needs to address.”

The poverty report arrived the same day the Maine Heritage Policy Center held a press conference and issued a study saying Maine is the most welfare-dependent state in the nation. The center says enrollment has grown by 70 percent since 2003, while its poverty level has remained stable.

In 2008, Maine’s individual poverty rate was 12.6 percent, compared to the national rate of 13.1 percent. However, Washington County (20.1 percent), Somerset County (18.7 percent) and Franklin County (17.5 percent) show the problem is much worse in what researchers called Maine’s rural “rim” counties.

Poverty is defined as having an income less than $10,400 for one person, less than $21,200 for a family of four, and so on. The poverty rates for children in Maine are even higher, at 16.5 percent, although still below the national average, the study shows.

Ann Acheson of the Margaret Chase Smith center, the report’s lead researcher, said Maine’s poverty rate and the indicators behind the numbers are not likely to rebound at the same rate as the economy.

She and others said the report highlights the demand for safety net social service programs such as general assistance, food stamps and heating subsidies.

Shawn Yardley, director of heath and community services for the city of Bangor, agreed but said he’s struck by the inequity of some subsidy programs. Washington County has the highest rate of poverty, but a majority of state funding for general assistance goes to cities such as Bangor and Portland.

“It’s easy to look at numbers and draw conclusions, but this requires thoughtful analysis and context,” Yardley said. “Poverty is more than numbers. There are people behind these numbers.”

One of them is Christina Lawler, who took a break Thursday from classes at Beal College in Bangor to talk about her recent experiences in poverty. She’s going back to school to get an associate degree in social and human services assisting, but in the past she has benefited from food stamps, federal housing subsidies and a federal program called Temporary Assistant for Needy Families, or TANF.

“It’s not something I wanted, but as a single mom, I didn’t have much choice,” Lawler said, adding that she can’t wait for the day when she doesn’t have to rely on any social services.

Meanwhile, across the river in Brewer on Thursday, the Heritage Policy Center, a Portland-based think tank, released “Fix the System,” which concludes that the state’s welfare system “undermines hard work and traps parents and children in poverty.”

The two disparate events in Greater Bangor highlight a dichotomy: The need for safety net services has never been greater but the working public has never been more bitter about the welfare system. Republican gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage has made welfare reform one of his signature campaign issues and his views are similar to the policy center’s.

In its 35-page report, MHPC says that one in three Mainers is “trapped in the welfare system.” Its figures include subsidized programs such as Medicaid not typically associated with welfare.

MHPC offers a few approaches to fix the system: Tighten income eligibility requirements, encourage more self-sufficiency and establish clearer time limits.

Yardley, however, said groups such as the Maine Heritage Policy Center oversimplify a complex system.

Lawler, who has worked in the past for Penquis, one of 10 local agencies encompassed by the Maine Community Action Association, said she understands the frustration over welfare.

“I’ve seen people take advantage of the system, but I haven’t seen a lot of people who relish going in and asking for help,” she said. “That’s not easy.”

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