Small-town life — we love it in our rural state. We pride ourselves in our Yankee resourcefulness, working together to solve difficult problems in our communities. But sometimes those problems lurk quietly under the surface, defying simple solutions.

There are some families in our little town who are hard workers but whose prosperity is complicated by family health issues. We are friends with these families in the way that friendships develop in small towns — we wave when we drive by, chat with each other at town meeting, catch up on each other’s children at the firemen’s supper.

There being no jobs near us, one family routinely made the 25-minute commute to Augusta to work for minimum wage. Trouble is, their only car was often on the blocks, to be fixed by the affordable town mechanic, who had a lot of other business.

Retail establishments in Augusta have little patience with workers’ car issues. Working families are often just one major car expense away from the edge of unemployability.

So we loaned the family an extra car when we could. I once connected a family to emergency funds from the Department of Health and Human Services that help with one-time expenses to keep families working and off welfare. I assume these families got some other assistance — food stamps or some other help from the state.

However, there are many who feel government is not the place to solve these problems. There should be local solutions — neighbors helping neighbors — that’s how it used to be. But these are not isolated cases; there are widespread economic issues plaguing our rural state and its families.


A Forbes magazine article quoted some recent research that makes this clear: Half of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. The Great Recession ended several years ago, but many Americans are currently vulnerable to financial disaster. Nearly one in three families does not have at least $500 set aside to cover an emergency expense.

The good news is unemployment rates have steadily dropped since the recession; the bad news is wages are very slow to recover. noted that the typical American household is still earning 2.4 percent less than their income in 1999. That typical family is also facing incredible increases in costs for health care, child care, housing and energy over that time span.

Small wonder that our low and moderate income families find themselves needing to reach out for help.

This year the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, Sara Gideon, sponsored a very comprehensive bill to help low-income families deal with barriers to work and challenges to family stability. The bill addresses such things as access to child care, emergency expense aid, affordability of heating, access to affordable housing, and reliable transportation. Gideon aims to use a reported $150 million in unexpended federal funds for this effort. The bill has been caught up in the legislative deadlock over the budget.

Again, the argument goes: Why should taxpayers foot the bill? Why can’t we get our local churches, service clubs, and charities to address these widespread needs?

The Chronicle of Philanthropy listed Maine as among the lowest states in charitable giving per capita, in part because we are not particularly religious and a third of philanthropic giving is to churches. Forbes added that when one looks at percent of income donated to charity, residents of New Hampshire gave the least, followed by New Jersey and Maine.


So how is our charitable service sector supposed to answer the call if we do not equip them with resources to do so?

Maine gets shortchanged in these surveys because there is no measure for volunteerism, a key thread in the fabric of small-town vitality. When someone needs cancer treatment in Boston or a family’s house burns down, community members come forward. We organize the bean suppers and fundraisers, help once, and go on our way. But there are people in our towns quietly facing frequent, small and urgent emergencies.

So if you’re looking to reduce the role of government, step up and help out. Organize fundraising to boost the town’s General Assistance fund. Follow Boothbay or Damariscotta’s lead and organize home-grown programs to provide fuel assistance. Learn from Waterville’s Community Investors’ program, providing such things as eyeglasses, new beds, towels and linens, and housing assistance. Help that first-generation college student buy the first semester’s books. Or take the new grad out to the mall to buy clothes for the first job. Follow the lead of Washington village and rebuild those steps to your elderly neighbor’s home — you know, those steps that you leapfrog to get to the door.

There’s a role for government as well as a role for community response. Be the change you wish to see.

Lisa Miller, of Somerville, is a former legislator who served on the Health and Human Services and Appropriations and Financial Affairs committees.

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