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As members of leadership in the Maine House, we have had the privilege of working on a number of issues critical to the health and wellbeing of our state and our communities this legislative session. But what brought us together, as Democrats and Republicans, is our work to build a path to prosperity for all Maine families. By focusing on the issues, and not the letters after our names, we were able to pass real reforms to help move people out of poverty and into the workforce.
Currently, one in eight Maine children is growing up in poverty. One in five is food insecure. These kids are less likely to succeed in school, less likely to graduate from high school, and more likely to be out of work as adults. The experience of childhood poverty has profound long-term effects on health, on earnings and even on mortality.
We also know that the wellbeing of these children and their families is inextricably tied to the success of our entire state. It is well known that we don’t currently have enough workers to fill jobs available now and, if demographic trends continue, certainly not ones that will be available in our future. Working with folks who are currently in poverty and reforming our system of public assistance to ensure we are incentivizing the right behavior — going to, or back to, work — will be a critical component of this solution.
In early 2017, recognizing our collective responsibility to address these issues, advocates, business leaders, service providers, and others formed the Invest in Tomorrow coalition with a goal of cutting Maine’s child poverty rate in half over the 10 ten years and eradicating child poverty in a generation.
After conducting extensive research into the root causes of poverty in Maine, including seeking input from the communities and individuals hardest hit, they concluded that our approach to eliminating poverty must be two-fold: we must help families in poverty meet their basic needs and ensure economic opportunities are accessible once those families are stable.
This issue isn’t partisan and neither are the solutions, which is why we decided to put these policy recommendations into action and cosponsored the Invest in Tomorrow package. We each submitted a bill and worked to gain the support of our caucuses. And even in these acrimonious times, both LIFT (Leveraging Investments so Families Can Thrive) and STEP (Secure Transitions to Economic Prosperity) passed unanimously and were signed by Gov. Janet Mills.
LIFT seeks to ease the transition for low-income families leaving Medicaid when they start to make more money, puts in place transparency measures at the Department of Health and Human Services and gives more qualifying families access to immediate help by eliminating an outdated eligibility tests.
Once a family’s most basic needs are met, LIFT will expand the ability of parents to get training, education, and acquire new skills that will ultimately qualify them for good jobs that pay a decent wage. Simultaneously this approach will increase the number of skilled workers and helps address the workforce shortage that we so often hear about from businesses and employers in our state.
STEP significantly reduces the “benefits cliff” families face when they transition off Temporary Assistance for Needy Families into employment by allowing parents just entering the workforce to earn more before experiencing a sharp decline in benefits. Parents receiving TANF without a high school degree will now be able to pursue their high school equivalency and improve their job prospects and earning capacity.
STEP will also increase help from nonprofits that use the “whole family” approach to assisting families, which combines supports for education and workforce development for parents with quality child care and early education for children. This approach is proven to help break the cycle of generational poverty.
Reducing the number of families in poverty and increasing our workforce are goals that we all share. Working across the aisle to pass this package was a testament to what we can accomplish when we do it together. There’s always more work to be done and we pledge to continue to fight for policies that create opportunity for all Maine people.
Sara Gideon of Freeport is the Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives. Trey Stewart of Presque Isle is the Assistant House Republican Leader.