I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in a small ranch house on a quarter-acre of land in suburban New York. When I was ten, my parents doubled the size of the house with a first-floor addition. “Poor people” were those who lived on the other side of a two-lane highway, in similar houses but with broken shingles, scruffier looking yards, and a banged up car in the driveway.
Moving to Maine in 1983 for a teaching job at a private boarding school, we were exposed to wealth like never before. One student’s parents would drive their Rolls Royce onto campus when they visited.
But in those early days in Maine, exploring the state’s backroads, I saw tarpaper shacks backed up to woods and trailers with plastic over broken windows and decrepit cars in the yard. Maine, I was told by colleagues, was a poor state.
After leaving teaching, I worked for a time in the social service realm, and had a personal encounter with those who lived in poverty. I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, but many of those with whom I worked on job seeking and training lived in a world characterized by short horizons.
Is there a moral quality to poverty? That explanation began creeping into discourse…
We helped one young man land a job for which he had no transportation for the 25 miles between job and home. “Well,” he told me, “I’ll just stay with my brother’s family,” who lived near the job. “I can sleep on the couch.” The brother, he had told me earlier, was going to be moving from the area in a couple of months. What he would do then never crossed his mind.
Hope, as trite as it might sound, for a better future and the skills to build a ladder to it were not part of the thought process.
In the early months of the Great Recession, I began working in Bangor, commuting the 76 miles round-trip from home. Spiking gas prices gobbled up the raise I’d gotten, so I found a carpool partner, a woman who lived in subsidized housing in Searsport who worked at a social service office in Bangor.
When she drove, we listened to conservative talk radio. One morning, she shared her anger over the 20-something young men who would sometimes march in to her office with their 18-year-old girlfriends, both carrying fancy coffee drinks that my friend couldn’t afford, asking that the agency “sign her up” for every benefit for which she was eligible.
My carpool friend told me, through tears, of raising her teen grandson and how his big appetite would empty the pantry days before her next food check would arrive.
Today, Maine’s poverty rate—for a family of four, income of $25,100 or less—is about 11%, which means there are more than 140,000 of our fellow Mainers in this bracket.
Is there a moral quality to poverty? That explanation began creeping into discourse during the Reagan years and never really left. But what if something more sinister were at work? Like a system that relies on poverty as a means to sustain affluence?
Matthew Desmond, the author of Poverty, By America, argues that poverty is maintained, not fought. Recently, on the WBUR show “On Point,” he said: “If you really look at the full nature of the welfare state, you learn just how utterly lopsided it is and how we’ve chosen this subsidization of affluence over the alleviation of poverty.”
He explained that wages, taxes, and housing policy contribute to poverty for those of us “who enjoy a level of economic security in America… We like cheap goods and services that the working poor produce,” advantages that “require a kind of human sacrifice—the price of poor, poorly paid workers.”
Tax breaks for mortgage interest, wealth transfers, and college savings do not benefit the working poor, Desmond says.
A couple of months ago, I visited the Maine Seacoast Mission’s center in Cherryfield. A woman who worked with the impoverished families in the area explained how she would chase down funding to fill a home’s oil tank, or get a box of food there, or help them navigate the paperwork to secure repairs to their house.
Important work, of course. But Desmond says our approach to poverty is like discussing the plight of someone who jumps out the window of a burning building, rather than learning how to stop the blaze and prevent other fires.
A hand-out, certainly. But the “hand up” part must be bolder, more sophisticated, and yes, it will cost more. Now, more than ever, with labor shortages and the scarcity of affordable housing, Maine can’t afford so much poverty.
Tom Groening is editor of The Working Waterfront. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.