Bangor Daily News, July 14, 2008: Low-income residents heard at County forum

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Monday, July 14, 2008 – Bangor Daily News

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine – The group was made up mostly of women, from a variety of ages and backgrounds. Some had high school diplomas; others had master۪s degrees. They all were asked to weigh in on the topic of poverty in Aroostook County.

During a session held by Aroostook County Action Program last month, 10 women and one man from The County took part in “Maine Voices,” a program organized by the Maine Community Action Association and funded by a grant from the Maine Community Foundation.

The MCAA was created in the mid-1960s under the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 to provide local organization of efforts to empower low-income people to lift themselves and their families out of poverty.

The 11 participants, all of whom were low-income, came from towns in one of the state۪s highest poverty areas, identified in the “Poverty in Maine: 2006” report produced by the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine.

According to updates to the report made this year, more than 21 percent of Aroostook County households received food stamps, while more than 18 percent of households were served by the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. The County, which has one of the oldest populations in the state, had the highest proportion of elderly households 40 percent receiving LIHEAP benefits.

The ideas received by the forum participants and the priorities they identified such as greater access to affordable higher education will help shape the agenda for the second annual Maine Symposium on Poverty and Economic Security, which will be held in Augusta on Oct. 27.

“It was a really interesting, enlightening experience,” Susanne Sandusky, special projects manager for ACAP in Presque Isle, said Friday afternoon. Sandusky moderated the forum in Aroostook. “I was really impressed by the frankness and openness of the participants and they generated a lot of good ideas and suggestions.”

Sandusky said participants came from a range of age and educational backgrounds two or three had advanced degrees and gave a variety of reasons for living in low-income situations.

“Several indicated that they didn۪t get the education they needed,” she said. “Others said they made poor choices earlier in their lives, such as having a family before they were prepared to have one. Others were in that situation because of unemployment either they or a spouse lost jobs and they just couldn۪t make ends meet anymore.”

Irving Faunce, director of program operations for Western Maine Community Action and project coordinator for Maine Voices, said the information provided by the forum participants will help local and state governments, social service agencies, families and social networks determine what they can do to help those struggling to make ends meet.

While Sandusky said that while the forum generated a lot of comments for government officials, it also had numerous benefits for participants.

“It was great to see how everyone there formed a connection,” she said of the Presque Isle event. “The participants arrived and most of them did not know each other, but they listened to each other۪s stories and they could relate to each other. They were open and honest with each other about what they had been through and they had some terrific suggestions for changes that could be made. It was great.”

The MCF grant provided a stipend to each participant to cover transportation and child care expenses for the forum. The grant will make available additional stipends for those who want to attend the Augusta symposium.

Similar sessions are slated for Bangor, Searsport, Skowhegan, Portland and Wilton.

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