April 07, 2020

Governor addresses poverty issues

Much attention has been paid to the recently released Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center’s Poverty Report. While information in this report is important, the picture that it paints may not be entirely complete. Lost in a handful of statistics is the fact that Maine’s poverty rate is lower than the national average. Furthermore, Maine has made significant strides to ensure all eligible people in need receive the services to which they are eligible.

The report uses, among other statistics, the increase in the number of Mainers receiving food stamps as an indication of a rising poverty level. Imbedded in the report itself are a number of clues as to the reason for the increase. Simply, the state has put in place new innovative measures to increase access to safety net programs for eligible Mainers. The federal government has itself instituted a number of reforms to increase access to this federally funded resource. Maine has been recognized by the federal government for efforts to increase access in the state. These efforts include utilizing debit cards, simplifying the application process, and automatically checking eligibility when a Mainer applies for another benefit through the Department of Health and Human Services.

When comparing the number of people who are eligible for food stamps to the number of those enrolled, in 2003, Maine stood at 72 percent, the highest penetration rate in New England (other New England states ranged from 43 to 60 percent). The success of Maine’s outreach program has translated into more federal funding being available for Maine’s program through high-performance bonus awards.

Furthermore, Maine is effective in ensuring that those eligible for services receive them. This is critical to helping Maine people get a hand up when they need it. Research has shown that a successful food stamp program helps to move families out of poverty. Those who receive the support – young children, families and the elderly – benefit from better nutrition and improved health. These factors also contribute to reduced health care costs, and this helps all Mainers.

The governor and his administration understand that any level of poverty is unacceptable. Gov. Baldacci has directed all state agencies to work with Maine communities to address poverty, and to ensure all Mainers have access to good-paying jobs. In fact, Maine remains below the national average when it comes to the poverty level, and the state’s poverty rate trended downward in 2003.

In addition, the recently released Brookings Institution report, conducted by an independent, nationally recognized think-tank on economic development, says that Maine is “surprisingly well-positioned for the future.” The governor has built an economic foundation that is solid, and recognizing that more work needs to be done, he’s continuing his policies of investing in people, in education, work force development, and in the technologies that will secure Maine a good position to compete for the jobs of the 21st century global economy.

The Brookings report recognizes the changes under way in the state that are diversifying Maine’s economic base. Maine has outperformed the nation in the area of job creation. Maine’s per capita income is at an all-time high when compared to the United States average, according to the report. In essence, the economic future of this state remains quite bright.

These facts are not meant to downplay the issue of poverty and its devastating effects on Maine citizens, however. The Baldacci administration has worked diligently to build, maintain and protect a safety net for its low-income families; has improved access to health care (reducing the rate of uninsured by more than half since the mid-’90s); has advocated for Maine’s elderly to assure protection of Medicare Part D benefits for those who are disabled; and has kept Mainers warm with a significant investment in Low-Income Heating Assistance.

While challenging poverty issues remain in the state, the governor is strongly committed to addressing them. His initiatives will expand opportunities for all Maine people.

Brenda M. Harvey is commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

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