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Sara Gideon is the former speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, former candidate for U.S. Senate and a member of the Maine Equal Justice board of directors. Robyn Merrill is the executive director of Maine Equal Justice.
A little over a year ago, we made a long overdue and necessary investment in Mainers. And as we expected, that investment is paving pathways out of poverty for Maine families.
In February of 2022, with financial support from Sara Gideon, Maine Equal Justice launched a $3.5 million initiative, the Build HOPE Project, to provide direct, emergency support to Maine families participating in two programs — the Higher Opportunity Pathways to Employment (HOPE) program and the Parents as Scholars program.
With the goal of helping more families find and hold on to economic security, the Legislature created HOPE together in 2019, while also making improvements to Parents as Scholars. These programs help pay for costs like transportation, child care and more that can make it possible for parents to take their education beyond high school to get the credentials, degree or certificate they need for a steady, good-paying job. But what we found is that those programs alone weren’t enough.
Even before skyrocketing inflation, a survey conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services of HOPE students found that many still struggled financially 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 were just $100 to $300 short of what they needed to meet their family budget. When you earn a low income and are deciding between gas, groceries or heat, the choice can have overwhelming implications.
When a family faces an emergency need that could derail their success, like a car that refuses to start or a leaky roof, the Build HOPE Project provided extra, direct financial assistance. In its first year, the project invested $530,000 to provide essential support, allowing parents and caretakers to unlock education and training opportunities on a pathway out of poverty. Many students were able to stay on track thanks to help with high utility, housing and transportation costs.
The belief in our collective responsibility to improve the lives of others will always guide this work and the proof of its impact comes from stories like Emily’s. She’s a full-time medical assistant student living in Easton who used Build HOPE funds to keep a roof over her head, one of the top needs applicants now look for as Maine confronts rapidly rising rents.
Emily said: “It’s helped with some of the hardest times I’ve seen. It made our holidays better, that’s for sure. On Christmas we didn’t have to worry about not having a place to live or anything, we were able to pay our rent and it was such a stress relief. It wasn’t about being able to buy stuff, it was having a place to live.”
Every time an individual applies to the Build HOPE project, a member of the Maine Equal Justice team calls them for an interview to go over their needs and the resources they are accessing to ensure they aren’t missing out on available resources. This one-on-one navigation helps to lessen the amount of debt they will end up with as a student and to ensure they are able to start their new careers on the firmest footing possible.
Ultimately, this direct investment in Mainers will pay dividends in our economy and help address our workforce shortage. Just read Hillary Moore’s story of success. The HOPE program helped her graduate with a bachelor’s degree in social work and the ability to provide for her family.
Employers are looking for people like Emily and Hillary to build a highly educated workforce that is ready for new opportunities. Meeting that need and providing real chances to succeed by giving people the tools to push through a long path to a degree just makes sense.
And as you can see from Emily, Hillary and so many others, that’s exactly what the Build HOPE project is doing.
Additionally, the Build HOPE project collects reliable data that will 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 HOPE and Parents as Scholars are as effective as they can be in helping parents succeed.
We’re proud to continue this work and feel confident that Mainers will always be our best asset and the Build HOPE Project a smart investment in their potential.