Poverty in Maine likely to worsen

Posted May 04, 2009, at 6:26 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — Poverty in Maine is at an elevated level and a researcher analyzing the figures predicts it is likely to get worse.

According to the Poverty in Maine Update study produced by the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine and the Maine Community Action Association, 12.2 percent of the state’s population was living in poverty in 2007, the most recent year complete figures are available. The poverty line in the report is defined as an individual making $10,210 a year or less; $13,690 for a couple; and $20,650 for a family of four.

Click here to view the report.

That 12.2 percent is about 1 percentage point lower than the national average. Maine has experienced a slow upward trend. In 2000-01 Maine’s poverty rate was 10.1 percent.

Ann Atcheson, a research associate with the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center, said that because the poverty rate was considered a “lagging indicator,” she expected the rate to climb due to the current recession. She said that traditionally, when a recession ends, poverty rates continue to rise.

“You can tell about economic distress by looking at the people getting benefits,” Atcheson said Monday. “I’m sure once the 2008 figures are out we’ll have an increase.”

Broken down by counties, Washington County was the highest with a poverty rate of 20.1 percent, while York County was lowest at 8.2 percent.

Aroostook County had a rate of 17.4 percent, Somerset County had a rate of 17.2 percent, Piscataquis County was 16.5, Waldo County was 14.5, Penobscot County was 13.5, Knox was 10.6 and Hancock was 9.9 percent.

Atcheson said the poverty report, released last month, included some measures compiled through September 2008. She said the study tracked the number of families using food stamps, the number of children eligible for free or reduced school lunch and those receiving heating assistance.

She added that heating assistance was not a true indicator of need because the federal government provides each state with a predetermined amount of money and agencies have to “stretch” their funds when the fuel prices increase. With food stamps and school lunch, on the other hand, “if the need goes up, the federal govern-ment will provide more assistance,” she said.

According to the study, an average of 177,695 people, or 14.3 percent of the state’s population, received food stamps in 2007-08. Somerset County had the highest rate with 22 percent, followed by Washington County, with 21.8 percent and Aroostook County with 18.2 percent. All told, 17.1 percent of the state’s households re-ceived food stamps during the tracking period.

The study found that the current increase in food stamp use was closely related to increased levels of need related to the economic downturn.

“Because food stamps is such a broad-based safety net program, it can be seen as a sensitive and immediate indicator of short-term patterns of economic distress,” the report stated.

For heating assistance, 48,278 households, or 9.3 percent of all households in the state, received vouchers during 2007-08. The number of households receiving heat assistance was less than the number receiving food stamps. In Aroostook County, 19.8 percent of households received assistance. In Washington County, 17.8 did, in Somerset County the percentage was 17.2, in Piscataquis County it was 16.6, in Waldo County it was 15.8 and in Penobscot County it was 10.2 percent.

According to the report, 75,364, or 39 percent of all students received either free or reduced school lunch in 2007-08. More than half the students in Washington, Waldo, Somerset and Piscataquis counties were eligible for the program. Aroostook County had an eligibility rate of 49.4 percent and Penobscot County had a rate of 42.3 percent.

The number of eligible students and the program participation rate for free or reduced lunch has increased each year for the past seven years, the study found, generally paralleling the pattern of increases seen in the food stamp program. That finding was not surprising because students whose families are receiving food assistance are automatically eligible for free school lunch, according to the report.

“We anticipate the recession will add significantly to the sobering picture presented here,” according to the report. “As we go to publication there is reason to be worried about Maine’s low- and middle-income families. There are tens of thousands of Mainers who will struggle to maintain enough income to sustain themselves, especially if layoffs continue and fuel prices rise during the next winter.”

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