In this February 2014 file photo, Liz Franck hugs her daughter Lucy Pearson while making pancakes for her on the morning of her 10th birthday at their Dedham home. Franck completed her undergraduate degree with help from the Parents as Scholars program. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

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Sara Gideon is the former speaker of the Maine House and a former candidate for U.S. Senate. Robyn Merrill is the executive director of Maine Equal Justice.

For families living on the edge of financial insecurity the difference between poverty and opportunity can be as little as a flat tire or lack of reliable internet access. One problem leads to another, and before long, the stability they’ve been working for slips out of reach.

That’s why we are launching a major, $3.5 million initiative, the Build HOPE Project, to provide direct, emergency support to the families participating in two programs — the Higher Opportunity Pathways to Employment (HOPE) program and the Parents as Scholars Program.

We created HOPE together in 2019 and have worked hard to improve Parents as Scholars Program, so more families could succeed. These programs make it possible for parents who are fighting poverty to take their education beyond high school and to get the credentials, degree or certificate they need for a steady, good-paying job.

But the evidence is clear: We need to do more to help these families when the unexpected occurs and they need a little more help just to make ends meet.

As a result of our previous work, Higher Opportunity Pathways to Employment is currently available to families with incomes at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level ($40,626 a year for a family of three) pursuing a post-secondary degree or credential that has at least an average job outlook as identified by the Department of Labor. And right now, the program has 379 parents participating. Parents as Scholars is similar, but only available to even lower-income families receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Despite the early success we see with Higher Opportunity Pathways to Employment, we know that there are still some gaps to fill to help ensure students’ success. A recent survey conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services of Higher Opportunity Pathways to Employment students found that many are still struggling to make ends meet over the course of their program: 83 percent of survey respondents said they have difficulty making ends meet at the end of each month.

Fifty-nine percent of those families are just $100 to $300 short of what they need to meet their family budget. It doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but when you are deciding between paying the internet bill so you can continue with remote classes or fixing the flat tire on the car that takes you to work, the choice can have overwhelming implications.

Just a bit of financial help can go a long way.

The new Build HOPE Project will provide that much needed support. The project will be funded through a contribution from Sara Gideon for Maine, using leftover campaign funds raised during the 2020 U.S. Senate race.

Establishing the Build HOPE Project through Maine Equal Justice is an effort to ensure more Maine kids and their parents can reach their full potential. The belief in our collective responsibility to improve the lives of others guides this work.

Ultimately, this direct investment in Maine people will pay dividends in our economy. While families need more sustainable paths out of poverty, Maine’s businesses and economy also need more skilled workers with training for a modern economy.

Education and job training professionals agree that part of the solution to workforce shortages is improved access to education for workers seeking higher wages, along with the support they cannot afford, but need, in order to successfully complete their training.

The Build HOPE Project will do exactly that.

That’s good news, because we don’t have enough workers to fill jobs available now and, as we face a demographic winter, certainly not ones that will be available in our future. Higher Opportunity Pathways to Employment has proved so successful in allowing students to begin programs in much-needed fields like behavioral health and nursing, that the state just increased the number of allowed participants by 300.

Additionally, the Build HOPE Project will also collect reliable data that can inform long-term, systemic policy improvements to increase economic opportunities for parents and their children into the future.

This research will help ensure that programs like Higher Opportunity Pathways to Employment and Parents as Scholars are as effective as they can be in helping parents to succeed.

Reducing the number of families in poverty, increasing workforce participation and ensuring programs are effective are goals that we all share.

The Build HOPE Project will help make those goals a reality. For families on the edge, we believe this little bit of timely help can open new doors of possibility and opportunity, and that’s an investment worth making.