Maine license plates tout our state as “Vacationland,”  while visitors to Maine are greeted with a “The Way Life Should Be” slogan. Certainly, many of us in Knox County like to think of our community as a healthy and desirable place to live — and want to keep it that way. Sadly, the support system we need for the community to thrive is eroding. It is sobering to reflect on these recent statistics published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation (“Kids Count” — http://datacenter.kidscount.org).  

• Children in poverty in 2014 in Knox County = 19.6% (state average = 19%)

• Children in extreme poverty (below 50 percent poverty-level) in Maine in 2014 = 9%

• Children under age 8 who are below 200 percent poverty level in Maine in 2013 = 45%

• Children whose parents lack secure employment in Maine in 2014 = 32%

• Children in low-income households with a high housing cost burden in Maine in 2014 = 57%

• Persons 18 to 24 in poverty in Maine in 2014 = 27%

• Teen pregnancy: in Knox County in 2007 = 9.8%

• Children not participating in MaineCare in 2015 = 50.4%

• Repeat teen pregnancies (the number of females under age 20 who became pregnant and who had already been pregnant at least once before in their lives) in Knox County in 2014 = 19.4%

• Childhood food insecurity (children under age 18 living in households where in the previous 12 months there was an uncertainty of having, or an inability to acquire, enough food for all household members because of insufficient money or other resources) in Knox County in 2013 = 22.9%

• Illicit drug use other than marijuana for 18- to 25-year-olds in Knox County in 2012-2013 = 8% (average of 9-11% in prior 4 years)

While poverty often seems invisible, the future health of the community will suffer if it is allowed to worsen.  Although not all addiction is due to poverty, 95% of inmates in Maine’s prisons are there due to poverty and drug addiction. Every day, three more addicted babies are born in Maine, going “cold turkey” with their first breath; nearly every day another Mainer dies of a drug overdose; and the number of teenagers with addiction grows at a frightening rate. The prospect of a wasteland in Knox County does not seem so remote after all — if we don’t do something about it.

Current Efforts to Address Poverty in Knox County Are Inadequate

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has services to help low-income families. However, in their own Executive Summary recently published, “DHHS Budget Initiatives for Fiscal Years 2016-2017,” DHHS stated, “For too long, DHHS has been too busy bailing out the boat to chart a course for Maine’s future.” As a result, the current state administration has markedly cut MaineCare enrollment, resulting in many more disadvantaged Mainers lacking any health insurance.  The administration has also “reformed Maine’s welfare system” with further cuts. At a time when poverty continues to undermine the health of our community, the state government is withdrawing more and more assistance.

On the somewhat more encouraging federal level, in 1964, the Economic Opportunity Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Johnson to form local Community Action Agencies (CAPs) as part of the “War on Poverty.” Penquis is a private, nonprofit organization that has celebrated 48 years of service as a CAP, serving Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, adding Knox County about 10 years ago after another local CAP failed to carry out the role.  Overall, statistics for poverty in Knox County have not significantly improved over the last decade. Current areas of focus include heating fuel assistance for qualifying individuals and supporting local Head Start efforts.

Local non-governmental efforts include several organizations. The local Area Interfaith Outreach (AIO) food pantry and emergency assistance provides, in addition to food, financial support, up to $300 per person annually, to community members for rent, medical services, electric bills, etc. Like Penquis, the AIO also provides heating assistance. Requests to the AIO have more than doubled over the past couple of years. 

The Knox County Homeless Coalition was formed several years ago to address homelessness, which seemed a growing problem for Knox County. In the years that the coalition has existed, they have helped more than 1,000 people, slightly more children than adults; 342 people are in their program currently. The coalition provides temporary shelter and case management services to address life skills, education support and other services to help people break the cycle of homelessness.



Other agencies also provide services, such as the Salvation Army and Goodwill, the Shields Mission Project administered by the First Congregational Church in Camden and others.

Clearly, all these organizations make a difference in the lives of the people they serve.  

At the same time, the number of children living in poverty in Maine continues to increase, as does the number who are seeking social services such as food stamps. Rates of drug addiction continue to rise at a frightening rate. These trends are worrisome.

Our Future

Despite the hard work by so many organizations in Knox County, much of what is provided does not get at root causes of poverty. While this appears a daunting task, many communities have made significant progress  by coordinating efforts across organizations and enlisting greater levels of community support (see www.whatworksforamerica.org).  There is so much for us to do. Knox County needs to learn lessons from communities that have had success, including:

• Doing what works. Knox County does not have to struggle alone with this issue. Learning “best practices” from across the U.S. will help us from having to “re-invent the wheel” and will help us focus our efforts more effectively.

• Coordinate across partners. At a time when government support is falling, forming strong local partnerships that include government and private and nonprofit organizations is essential to get the maximum impact with limited resources. Without strong partnerships, it is likely the current situation will deteriorate further.  

• The Knox County Homeless Coalition is a good example of the power of partnership. They brought together local social agencies, organizations providing services, elected officials and community members to share their knowledge and to network. A group of local people worked together to raise funds and submit grant applications for sustainable and successful programs. This program has helped more than 1,000 people in just a few years.

This needs to be replicated for other issues such as early childhood physical, emotional and sexual abuse; behavioral health disorders including drug addiction; inadequate employment opportunities; low skill and educational levels; lack of health insurance and access to medical, dental and behavioral health care; lack of transportation; ongoing damaged personal and family relationships; social isolation; and entanglements with law enforcement. Partnerships to impact these issues are within our reach.

Elves will not come in the night to solve our problems.  We need brave community leaders to step forward, to get us organized and to lead the way in making Knox County a healthier place.

New Plans for a Knox County “Community Investors Initiative”

Currently, there is serious discussion about implementing a program that has had a tremendous impact in Lewiston. Called the “Community Investors Initiative,” it brings together local charitable organizations into a cohesive unit to respond to individual and family needs. Examples of this include help to disadvantaged people who need food, housing and/or transportation assistance, medical care expenses and much, much more.  

It is hoped that, by this summer, a local coalition will extend invitations to well-meaning neighbors to sign up as Community Investors to expand the charitable organization’s reach. As is done in Lewiston, investors would receive group email requests to respond to the needs of individuals and families, and investors who are able to help with a request are directed to an email address for instructions about how to assist. In less than one year, Lewiston’s Community Investors numbers have grown from 90 to 238.  

In their “Round 30” of requests is a good example of a request: “This week we are helping a single mom who is currently unemployed and is actively searching for a new job. She is using resources available to her, but she honestly just does NOT have enough to fill the basic needs of her family until she becomes employed again. We are still accepting food donations. Here is a list of food donations she would greatly appreciate: soup, canned tuna, pasta, potatoes, rice, cereal, juice, canned chicken.”

In Lewiston, 100% of requests have been met since the program started. Knox County can do this within the next six months. 

Everyone interested in being kept informed about Neighbors Helping Neighbors activities and about the Community Investor program as it is developed, as well as other opportunities to join effective community partnerships, is encouraged to e-mail join.the.knox.cause@gmail.com (or call or text 370-9881).