Why a recent MHPC report on poverty isn’t very helpful

I’m dragging some serious butt after a sudden move, so today’s post isn’t my most detailed or articulate. Who knew how settled in a family could get after eight years, even in as small a space as I just cleared out? It felt like the moving equivalent of the clown car gag at the circus!

Every few trips up and down the three flights of stairs at my former apartment building, I kept thinking that I have to remember to do a post about a report released recently by the Maine Heritage Policy Center called “Top Ten Things Keeping Mainers Poor.” I read it shortly after it came out and had planned to do an analysis.

Now I am too tired to touch on more than a couple points.  They’re more global in nature.

Starting with the pictures featured at the beginning of the report. Click here to see. Personally, I found them so offensive, I can’t reprint them. If the folks at MHPC need images of poverty in Maine in the future, they can feel free to contact me — I’ve been there and would be happy to contribute an image. Or they could walk into just about any school excepting those in wealthier towns and counties and ask permission to photograph a classroom of children.

From what I know statistically, they could run a picture of most classrooms in Maine with a caption reading:  anywhere from roughly 1/3 to 1/2 of these children live in households whose incomes are around the poverty line. Such a picture would have been a nice segue to their discussion on education, which did have a good point or two but failed to address the role hunger and other stressors are playing in too many of our students’ lives.

The order of the list of things keeping Mainers poor is as wrong as the pictures. At this moment I am painfully aware of the high cost of housing in central Maine, relative to income potential. I have been painfully aware of that for two moves over the last decade and a half.

While a limited number of jobs that pay a living wage are a problem, the high cost of housing should have been number one on the list instead of number four. Why? Because if housing costs were lower, people could piecemeal together a meager, but decent lifestyle with the jobs currently available, while hoping for better ones to come along.

And because when you have kids the first thing you think about is shelter and food.

My last thought goes out to both liberal think tanks and conservative ones.  Enough already with the tug-of-war over which philosophy has the corner on eliminating poverty.  My whole life, I’ve been listening to this side say they know how to fix poverty and the other side saying, no do it this way.

Surprise, surprise — poverty hasn’t changed.

We waste a bucket ton of money talking about poverty and funding a cluster(mess) of programs meant to combat poverty and still we have poverty. What we don’t do is simply do the things that work, which is sad. Utah stopped talking about eliminating homelessness and has virtually done it — in just over 12 years.

Solving issues related to poverty is only as complicated as the people collecting salaries to say they are working on poverty want it to be. There are some very simple steps that, over time, are likely to chip away at these issues, like a base income for all as proposed by Dr. King over forty years ago. Another would be fixing our mental health system, which has failed to fulfill the covenant inherent in the deinstitutionalization push.

And yet another simple step would be shifting our criminal justice system from simply a punitive one to one that mandatorily incorporates accountability with rehabilitative measures. Sure people will cry these simple steps would be costly, but I doubt they will be more costly than forty years of talking and pretending to fix poverty in very expensive and failing ways.

Further, once poverty rates start to go down, the costs associated with combatting it will too. Maybe just maybe there’ll come a day when the concept of mass poverty is a note in a history book. Then liberals and conservatives will have to find a new population to keep in their tug-of-war mudhole.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.