Scott Labbe, 63, is a retired, former business owner who has lived in Madison for 40 years. When he first moved to town, there were four appliance stores, three stores selling televisions and four furniture stores, he said.

One of those stores, Scott’s Appliance, was his. People in Somerset County were not wealthy — he recalled once trading a washer for half a slaughtered cow — but they made a living.

Now, he questions how people in Madison and Somerset County make ends meet, considering the shortage of good jobs in comparison to housing payments, food costs, fuel for the car and the expenses that come with raising children.

Labbe is on the mark — a recent report says nearly one in five people in Somerset live in poverty. Of the county’s 52,200 residents, 9,700 people, or 18.6 percent, live below the poverty line.

The numbers show what Labbe has seen. Over the years a movie theater and bowling alley in Madison have closed. His former appliance store was recently torn down to make way for a Family Dollar store. Tomato grower Backyard Farms has opened, but other small independent businesses have been shuttered.

“If people get $10 an hour in this town, come home with $7 or $8 of it, they’re doing good,” he said.

The Poverty Update Report was prepared by the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine for the Maine Community Action Association. The association represents 10 agencies that provide services to low-income people across Maine.

The report shows that Somerset residents live in the second poorest county in the state. And the county is getting poorer. In 1999 the estimated poverty rate in Somerset was 14.9 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Washington County is listed as the poorest county, with 19.4 percent of the population below the poverty line. A person lives in poverty if he or she earns less than $10,890 per year — or $5.24 an hour for a 40-hour workweek. The state’s mininum wage is $7.50 an hour.

Kennebec County has a poverty rate of 11.7 percent, while Franklin County is at 15.6 percent. York and Cumberland counties have the lowest rates out of Maine’s 16 counties, both at 10.3 percent.

The consequences of living in poverty can be severe, according to research and interviews. Children from poor families tend to complete less school and end up working and earning less. They also are more likely to live shorter lives.

Poverty is a complex issue with many causes, said Rick McCarthy, senior advisor to the Maine Community Action Association.

Sometimes people are struggling with mental or physical health problems. Others have lost their jobs or don’t have the education necessary to get ahead.

“Everything is right on the edge for these folks,” he said, and it “creates a serious stress that most of us don’t have to live with.”

According to the report, children continue to be hardest hit by poverty. In 2010, 18.2 percent of Maine children under age 18 lived below the poverty line, compared to 21.6 percent nationally. In Somerset, the number was 25.7 percent.

As of Oct. 1, a record high 45.9 percent of Maine school children were eligible for free or reduced lunch. In Somerset the rate was nearly 60 percent.

The poverty rate is lower for seniors than the general population in part because of safety nets like Medicare and Social Security, according to the report.

Based on three-year estimates, the poverty rate in 2008-2010 for people ages 65 and over in Maine was 10.1 percent, compared to 9.4 percent nationally.

Somerset had the highest poverty rate among seniors out of all Maine counties at 14.1 percent.

Education

The poverty report points to the continued need for child care, transportation, employment opportunities, support services and especially educational opportunities for children, McCarthy said.

There is evidence that the effect of poverty on very young children can damage their development, according to a report by Greg Duncan and Katherine Magnuson, “The Long Reach of Early Childhood Poverty.”

Duncan, an education professor at the University of California at Irvine, and Magnuson, an associate professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, call for “intensive programs aimed at providing early care and educational experiences for high-risk infants and toddlers.”

Jared Berstein, a former deputy chief economist for the U.S. Labor Department, argues that the education of poor children and people must be balanced with a sound economy and enough jobs.

Otherwise, the danger is that “skilled workers end up all dressed up with nowhere nice to go,” he wrote in an article published by the liberal magazine The American Prospect.

Rep. Larry Dunphy, R-Embden, said there is no easy answer for how to reduce the poverty rate, especially because poverty is tied to many other things like crime and health. But education is key, he said, particularly when the educational opportunities are structured to meet the work demands of the area.

Having a population with marketable skills is important, as an educated workforce is more likely to attract businesses to an area, agreed Joy Hikel, Madison’s economic development director.

She would like to see more educational centers in Somerset County, she said, not just for children but also for troubled youth or adults.

People who have lost work over the last several decades need to adapt to a new job landscape after the closure of big employers in the area, including Solon Manufacturing Co. in Skowhegan, the Quimby Veneer Mill in Bingham and Dexter Shoe Co., she said.

“Small service jobs and small convenience jobs just can’t take the brunt of employing that many people,” she said, so people must learn new skills in order to be competitive.

The conservative national Heritage Foundation, however, questions the standard definition of poverty in a report by Senior Research Fellow Robert Rector and Research Assistant Rachel Sheffield.

The July 2011 report stated that in 2005, households defined as poor had a car, air-conditioning, color televisions, cable or satellite TV, a DVD player and a VCR, a refrigerator, oven, stove and microwave, clothes washer and dryer, ceiling fan, cordless phone and coffee maker.

“Some poor Americans do experience significant hardships, including temporary food shortages or inadequate housing, but these individuals are a minority within the overall poverty population,” the report states.

That report from the Heritage Foundation, however, drew a harsh response from advocates for the poor when it was released last summer.

“First, the electronic devices that Heritage cites are everyday necessities today,” wrote Melissa Boteach and Donna Cooper, of the Center for American Progress Poverty & Mobility blog. “Who has iceboxes anymore? Who doesn’t need a cellphone to find a job or keep one? Fortunately, these appliances are all significantly cheaper these days, but not so the real everyday basics such as quality child care and out-of-pocket medical costs, both of which have risen much faster than inflation, squeezing the budgets of the poor and middle-class alike. In fact, if anything, those who we consider poor today are far more out of the social mainstream in terms of their basic income than when our poverty measure was first set in the 1960s.”

Health

David Williams, a professor of public health at the Harvard School of Public Health, says socioeconomic status is a greater predictor of health than genetics, exposure to carcinogens or smoking.

Poorer people are more at risk for premature death and more at risk of being obese or overweight, according to Williams.

According to a July 2011 report by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, more than 33 percent of adults who earn less than $15,000 per year were obese, compared with 24.6 percent of those who earn at least $50,000 per year.

Everyone is affected by the health of their neighbors. Doubling of obesity since 1987 accounts for almost 30 percent of the increase in health care costs, according to Williams.

Williams argues that to improve people’s health and reduce medical bills, towns and states should not only invest in schools, jobs and preschool programs but sidewalks, produce markets, parks, housing and transportation.

The situation isn’t improving for people with low incomes. The 46.2 million people in poverty in 2010 in the U.S. is the largest number in the 52 years for which poverty estimates have been published, according to the census bureau.

A brighter side

There are benefits to living in an area like Somerset County, Hikel said. The poverty level doesn’t always reflect the quality of life that comes with living in or near a quiet area with mountains, lakes and rivers.

Labbe knows that well. He has stayed in the county because of the people here, he said. It’s his home.

Standing in his front yard, he gestured to his house and said, “They’ll carry me out in a box because I’m not moving.”

Erin Rhoda — 612-2368

[email protected]


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