MACHIAS, Maine — Nearly one in three children living in Washington County lives in poverty.
A recent study titled “Poverty in Maine” shows 30.9 percent of those under age 18 are living in Washington County households with incomes below the federal poverty level. On a county-by-county basis, that is the highest childhood poverty rate in Maine. Statewide, the childhood rate is 18.2 percent, which is less than the national rate of 21.6 percent.
Poverty begets poverty, in the view of Holly Gantmayer-DeYoung, CEO of Eastport Healthcare, which has a patient base replete with low-income families plagued by multiple and chronic medical and mental health problems. Children who live within Washington County’s hand-to-mouth households, she said, begin to perceive their bleak way of life as how things will always be.
“Much of Washington County lives in a culture of poverty that creates a culture of hopelessness,” she said Tuesday. “And when one is caught in this poverty cycle and can’t get work, they have no real sense of self-worth. It becomes a multigenerational model as children witness this cycle.”
The study by the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine is based on recently released U.S. Census county-level poverty data. The data show that Washington County has the highest overall poverty rate in Maine, at 19.4 percent.
Statewide, Maine’s individual poverty rate was 13.1 percent in 2010, lower than the national average of 15.3 percent. The numbers show that 11 of Maine’s 16 counties had poverty rates in 2010 that were above the state’s average. Cumberland County had the lowest poverty rate, at 10.3 percent.
Maine is the nation’s “oldest” state, with more residents over 65 and older than any other state. The poverty rates for Maine’s elderly is higher than the national average. A three-year estimate based on data from 2008-2010 puts Maine’s rate at 10.1 percent compared with 9.4 percent nationally. Somerset County had the highest elder poverty statistics at 14.1 percent, followed by Washington County at 12.7 percent. The lowest rate was for Cumberland County at 6.1 percent.
The study was commissioned by the Maine Community Action Association. In her analysis of the data it presents, association President Pat Kosma notes that poverty is so pervasive that 45 percent of Maine’s schoolchildren are eligible for free and reduced-cost school lunches, with that figure close to 60 percent in several counties. Washington County had the highest rate of eligibility at 59.3 percent, while Cumberland County had the lowest at 32.6 percent.
Kosma, who is the CEO of the Kennebec Valley Community Action Program and Housing Services, suggests in her analysis that state policymakers “consider the unique needs of those in rural areas as [they] implement programs for low-income residents. These include transportation between home and work or services, the availability of support services, the isolation of seniors and the relative scarcity of employment.”
The Augusta-based Maine’s Children Alliance has for many years voiced its concern for how poverty impacts infant and child well-being. In analyzing its most recent report on the sobering status quo, Dean Crocker, the group’s president, connected the dots between childhood poverty, infant development, childhood health and educational achievement. The Alliance also is concerned about Maine’s high rate of infant mortality and low birth-weight babies.
“Our babies are our future,” says Crocker. “These numbers are moving in the wrong direction. When we see disturbing trends in the data, we must respond with investments in programs and policies that give children a better start in life.”