Piscataquis County Democratic Committee forum examines how to ensure success for children and families

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DOVER-FOXCROFT — Throughout the year the Piscataquis County Democratic Committee is holding a series of non-partisan information forums on various issues facing the region. The most recent “Ensuring the Success of Our Youngest Mainers: A Conversation about Children and Families in Piscataquis County” during the afternoon of Aug. 2 at Mayo Regional Hospital examined related challenges such as poverty, food insecurity, and barriers in accessing care, and the discussion featured Maine Speaker of the House of Representatives Sara Gideon, D-Freeport.

Piscataquis County Democratic Committee Chair Carole Boothroyd said in March the group identified five key issues facing the region and Maine, the state budget, a sustainable environment, education, healthcare and economic development. “I think today’s forum touches on the last three of those,” Boothroyd said.

“We are delighted to have two very knowledgeable facilitators for the discussion,” Boothroyd said. Gideon, who is serving her first term as speaker of the house and third term representing the Cumberland County communities of Freeport and Pownal in Augusta, was joined by Dover-Foxcroft resident Sue Mackey Andrews. Mackey Andrews is a member of the Maine Children’s Growth Council, Maine Resilience Building Network, and the Helping Hands with Heart collaborative.

Mackey Andrews said poverty is likely the most substantial barrier to success facing rural Mainers, and she provided statistics on how the condition is more pervasive in Piscataquis County than elsewhere. She said 20.9 percent of county residents are living in poverty, vs. 13.9 percent of the state population and 11.5 across New England.

“More than a third of our kids live in poverty,” she said, as among households with children 33.5 percent fall under the poverty threshold vs. 18.6 percent in the state and 15.3 percent across New England. “We have a school district in this region where 95 percent of kids are eligible for free and reduced lunch.”

Mackey Andrews then said 42 percent of children born into poverty remain as such as adults, vs. just 9 percent of children born into affluency falling into poverty as adults, and she described this condition as “generational poverty.”

“One in four kids in Piscataquis County, as you have heard is food insecure,” she said, identifying food security as when families go without one meal per day. “28.4 percent of kids in Piscataquis County are food insecure and it’s going up.”

“The top five contributors to poor health in the county, and we know them all, are poverty, lack of transportation and employment options, food insecurity and housing instability,” Mackey Andrews said. “Knowing these things probably don’t make you feel better but knowing about this probably helps you solve the problem.”

Gideon said she has three children and she spent time volunteering at their school. She said the experience helped open her eyes as even in Freeport there were students “who were not just hungry but really were not able to and not ready to learn.” She said the lack of food for these pupils put them behind their peers.

“I thought ‘how can I make a difference’ and that’s what led me to run for office,” Gideon said, as she served on the Freeport Town Council before being elected to the Maine Legislature.

“How can we take this population of 10,000 kids in Maine living in deep poverty and make a difference,?” the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives asked.
Gideon said she is using her position to elevate the topic. “We were able to slide into the budget, a number of components that really targeted childhood poverty and started to make a difference,” with these included in the state spending plan approved in early July.

The state budget includes an increase for low-income heating assistance programs across the state. Gideon said another program provides aid for families with housing expenses exceeding over 50 percent of their household incomes.

“Kids can have a foundation with heat and a roof over their heads,” she said.

Gideon said another pilot program, which she said has worked successfully in Hancock County and elsewhere in the country, allows for residents in low income brackets access to quality used vehicles at low interest rates. She said the initiative participants will “hopefully be able to be in the workforce and get their children back and forth to childcare.”

Another component in the new state budget is an increase in the reimbursement rate for direct care workers serving senior citizens and clients with intellectual disabilities.

A question from the audience inquired about news reports indicating some residents of Maine feel the poor are that way because they are not trying to get out of the lower income brackets.

Mackey Andrews said few if anyone desires to be poor but for some there may be doubts and a “feeling this is too good to be true or ‘I don’t deserve this’” which can lead to students dropping out of high school shortly before graduation and newly-hired employees starting to come in late to work and ultimately losing their employment. “We have got to do better in determining how do you really help people,” she said.

Some related comments from the attendees said some other possible reasons for an inability to stay employed are anxiety and finding the jobs unfulfilling.

“Hundreds of people leave this county every day to go Bangor for methadone treatments,” Mackey Andrews said, saying there are hundreds more on program waiting lists and many of these residents lack health insurance. She said when they are traveling to and in Bangor all day long they cannot work, and there is also a stigma attached to addiction that needs to be changed.

Gideon said with a decline in population various services offered decrease or are eliminated and schools end up being consolidated. “There’s nothing to build on and every reason to move away,” she said.

The house speaker said a question on the November ballot will deal with the expansion of Medicaid in Maine. “This is not a partisan issue, it’s based on reality,” she said. Gideon said it will be challenge but it is important for residents to understand the issue and get out and vote.

“One of the greatest tools we have for the opioid crisis is Medicaid expansion, period,” she said.

“Do you know anyone who does not deserve to eat, because I don’t,” Mackey Andrews said. She said also does not know of anyone who does not deserve to go to the doctor’s or the dentist, and said the No. 1 reason area residents go to the emergency room is dental pain.

Mackey Andrews said the most members of the audience are enjoying or have enjoyed robust careers. “We have kids who don’t know the difference between a job and a career,” she said.

Helping Hands with Heart is planning to have members of the community speak at school assemblies in the fall, and Mackey Andrews asked those present to consider doing this and being available after to speak with students one on one. “We have ideas for raising aspirations of our kids,” she said.

Observer photo/Stuart Hedstrom
ENSURING SUCCESS FOR CHILDREN AND FAMILIES — Maine Speaker of the House Sara Gideon, D-Freeport and Dover-Foxcroft resident Sue Mackey Andrews, left, served as facilitators for the Piscataquis County Democratic Committee’s information forum “Ensuring the Success of Our Youngest Mainers: A Conversation about Children and Families in Piscataquis County” on Aug. 2 at Mayo Regional Hospital in Dover-Foxcroft.

Observer photo/Stuart Hedstrom
ISSUES FORUM — Attendees of an Aug. 2 issues forum hosted by the Piscataquis County Democratic Committee at Mayo Regional Hospital in Dover-Foxcroft heard from Maine Speaker of the House Sara Gideon, D-Freeport on issues such as child poverty, food insecurity, the opioid crisis, and more and discussed possible solutions to the problems.

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