Spotlight Exclusives

New Study Tracks Maine’s Gains and Gaps in Promoting Education For Low-Income Parents

Sandra Butler and Luisa S. Deprez Sandra Butler and Luisa S. Deprez, posted on

Education beyond high school is a door out of poverty; a step into the prospect of living a life with greater economic security in 21st-century America. Studies consistently find that post-secondary educational success leads to gains for individuals and for the country as a whole. The individual benefits are clear: increased access to jobs with good wages and health benefits, lower risks of unemployment, better chances of career advancement, and less risk of job loss during economic downturns. In addition, enriched personal lives, greater self-esteem and confidence, stable housing, and improved family relationships round out some of the benefits.

For parents, they see higher aspirations for their children, thus positioning their children as their primary motivation for seeking a post-secondary education. And rightly so: the most important factor in predicting a child’s educational attainment is how far in school their parent(s) progressed. States and the country benefit by getting dedicated, diligent, well-educated professionals, able to traverse complex landscapes and add significantly to local and state economic security and growth.

Maine has the distinction of being a national leader when it comes to ensuring access to, and support for, low-income parents pursuing post-secondary education.  In 1997, the state created Parents as Scholars (PaS) in response to new federal legislation—the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA)—which gave states leeway in deciding whether to continue or abandon access to post-secondary education for families receiving federal assistance.

As only one of two states—the other was Wyoming—that understood the critical importance of education as a route out of poverty, Maine protected and continued access for poor and low-income families. Opening educational doors even wider for low-income parents was accomplished with the commencement of The Higher Opportunities Pathways to Employment (HOPE) program, established in 2018 under Maine’s LIFT 2.0 (Leveraging Investment for Families for Tomorrow) legislation.

In 2022, Maine Equal Justice (MEJ), a non-profit dedicated to social justice, launched the Build HOPE Project to provide additional, flexible financial assistance—up to $2,000 annually—to HOPE and PaS students for emergent needs. To deepen the understanding of the challenges faced by parents pursuing education as a pathway out of poverty, offer policy-makers valuable insights into how this support impacts Maine families and the workforce, and identify policy changes needed to support their success, a research component, which we led, was added. The resulting research report, Build HOPE: Post-Secondary Support for Parents with Low-Incomes in Maine – Charting Success, Bridging Gaps and Illuminating Pathways for Economic Mobility, offers a comprehensive picture of the significance of the PaS and HOPE programs and the impact of additional support from the Build HOPE grant, and issues an urgent call for both additional resources and substantive policy changes.

Our sample represented groups that have historically encountered and experienced inequity, marginalization, economic insecurity, and barriers to accessing higher education: 89.3% were women; 87% heads-of-households; over 50% were first-generation; 40% of families had a special needs child; and, in a predominantly white state, 25% identified as a race other than white. Slightly more than half (52.4%) had annual incomes of under $10,000 a year.

State programs like HOPE and PaS offer vital financial and navigational aid and services: nearly all respondents enrolled in them said that without them, they could not have otherwise advanced their education.  Yet despite this critical support, persistent financial challenges remain, diminishing the prospects of their completing their studies.

Families mostly directed the Build HOPE funds they received toward meeting basic living expenses: transportation and car repairs, housing, electricity, heat, education supplies, clothing and shoes, and food. Securing basic needs is pivotal to academic success but for some of these needs, there is nowhere for parents to turn.

While trying to achieve stability and security for themselves, and even more so for their children, many families are struggling under the most difficult of conditions. They face endless and overwhelming household demands, often on their own. Each month, in order to stay afloat, they move their limited incomes into a different “to-be-paid-at-another-time” category while building a continuing trail of debt. The harder these families are pushed to the edge, the more fragile they become. While resourceful and resilient, they just can’t come out even; thrift only goes so far. And too often, there are few people who “have their back”.

A recent editorial in the Portland (Maine) Press Herald (PPH) brought attention to the crisis in chronic school absenteeism, noting that it is an issue exacerbated by poverty. Twice as many poor children were absent as compared to their more well-off peers. Families are attempting to function under the most difficult of conditions, many barely making it. ‘When simply finding food, shelter and care is an hour-by-hour struggle, getting to school some days becomes a low priority. Sometimes, with unstable transportation and housing, it’s impossible,”  the editorial reads. The bitter irony here: education is that door out of poverty.

The Build HOPE Fund provided student-parents with access to immediate financial assistance when they were most in need; when they had no place left to turn. For them, it was a life-line. When asked in the interviews we conducted how they would have managed without this support, many shrugged and said they didn’t know. Without hesitation, however, they also indicated that they would do as they had been doing to stay afloat. The intent of providing this financial assistance when it was most needed was, however, not just to keep them afloat but to also affirm their determination and strength, and their aspirations for both their own and their children’s futures.

The report findings call policymakers to action—investment in programs like HOPE and PaS is essential for empowerment, addressing disparities, and fortifying communities and Maine’s workforce. Parents who reach their goals through HOPE and PaS seek careers in high-demand fields such as social work, counseling, and health care are helping address Maine’s workforce shortages. The report urges targeted policy initiatives—increased flexible income support, transportation assistance, affordable housing, and energy cost solutions. It calls upon state departments, educational institutions, and training programs to unite to work toward a unified effort that will both secure success for these parents and attend to the workforce challenges confronting the state. The state’s economic well-being is intricately linked to the success of these families, making proactive measures and targeted policies essential for a brighter future.


Sandra Butler, PhD, is a Professor, Director, and MSW Coordinator in the School of Social Work at the University Of Maine, Oronco, ME.



Luisa S. Deprez, PhD, is Professor Emerita of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Southern Maine, Portland, ME

« Back to Spotlight Exclusives