The headline for the Oct. 7 editorial read, “Child poverty needs more than a growing economy.” On Oct. 29, it read, “Workforce needs challenge every industry.” We agree with both.

A vibrant and just economy depends on formidable and sustained investments in human capital across the spectrum of the population. Children in poverty are too often denied access to high-quality education and opportunities that will prepare them to become productive workers and citizens. Failure to intervene in the early stages of child development will have costly consequences for Maine’s future, guaranteeing unacceptably high rates of child poverty in the years to come.

Thousands of Mainers live in poverty, including nearly 35,000 children who will be expected to fill jobs in Maine’s future workforce. Even in the midst of tight labor markets and thousands of unfilled job openings, too many Mainers are being left out from holding well-paying meaningful jobs.

Over 20,000 individuals are officially counted as unemployed (twice that number are discouraged and sub-employed  workers); an estimated 13,000 young people between the ages of 18-24 are out of school, out of work and have no diploma beyond high school; hundreds of newly arriving immigrants represent an immense reserve of human capital but need assistance to effectively enter Maine’s workforce; and many more with disabilities want to remain engaged in today’s labor market but also need support to do so.

Female breadwinners face disproportionately high poverty rates and are often unable to adequately support their families. And a more recent phenomena of reduced labor force participation impacts prime working-age men who are relegated to lives of poverty as their skills sets no longer match what the economy of today needs.

At the same time, persistent job vacancies reported by Maine employers are burdening the Maine economy in the form of lost wages and incomes and reduced tax receipts.

Addressing this contradiction — job opportunities that are not being filled while thousands of Mainers offer potential for growing Maines’s workforce — must remain a top priority for policymakers.

Resolving this contradiction to address the twin goals of increasing economic security for our state’s most disadvantaged workers and families and growing Maine’s labor force will require strong, unprecedented inter-departmental collaboration and resource pooling between all state departments, local adult and vocational education programs, the community college and university systems, and community agencies.

Multiple strategies will be needed to meet the complex and diverse needs, and education and skill requirements of workers and employers in a future labor market. Effective human capital development will require a life-cycle approach to policy and training beginning in an individual’s most formative years and continuing throughout her or his lifetime.

Investments in education and training must be accompanied by improvements in the quality, security, stability and mobility of jobs. The recognition that education is a fundamental part of developing an engaged citizenry and supporting thriving communities must be about more than just preparing a workforce.

Better coordination of currently- ragmented resources is key to ensuring greater success for those working to achieve economic security. In addition to those engaged in education and training programs, Maine also needs more innovative public policies to tackle the mismatch between wages and what it takes to be fully self-supporting in today’s economy. Unambiguous performance goals and accountability systems focused on growing the labor supply and improving family incomes must be at the forefront of such policies.

It will not be simple or cheap to craft strategies and programs that achieve meaningful and sustainable remedies for the complex barriers that define structural poverty and afflict those out of the economic mainstream.  We will need to overcome obstacles of our own making as well, including the confusing and underfunded array of critical but often disconnected programs and service delivery systems distributed across multiple governmental agencies.

Modernizing existing systems, using technology and other tools to make them more user-friendly, will increase access to services, interventions and benefits across the spectrum of state and federal programs now operating in isolation from one another. Workforce programs and tuition support, housing assistance, early childhood services, income supports, medical insurance coverage and personal counseling must be combined over a prolonged period to compensate for the profound underinvestment that has left thousands in poverty.

These Mainers want a better life for themselves and their families and an opportunity to raise their living standards and contribute to Maine’s future.

If we are to succeed at overcoming one of Maine’s formidable challenges of growing the size of the workforce while at the same time raising Maine families out of poverty, we must embrace bold and innovative solutions for investing in Maine residents who both lack necessary skills and confront a system of perverse incentives.

Many state and community leaders have already worked hard to produce impressive results, but we must do so much more.

 

Luisa S. Deprez is Professor Emerita of Sociology and the Edmund S. Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine. John Dorrer, a labor market economist, is the former director of the Center for Workforce Research and Information at the Maine Department of Labor. They are members of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear monthly.

 


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