To say that 2020 upended how we live, work and connect is an understatement. Loss, uncertainty, change and adaptation were the standout themes for all of us and – even with the recent arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine – will continue to be for months ahead. This is especially true for Maine families.

The lessons learned from family-by-family work in Maine have the potential to yield a broader impact on issues of the utmost importance to our state’s future – such as strengthening our workforce, addressing poverty and ensuring that the next generation of Mainers has the best chance for success. A3pfamily/Shutterstock.com

At the John T. Gorman Foundation, which works to help Maine organizations and leaders improve the lives of vulnerable Maine people, our conversations in the New Year have centered on the extraordinary circumstances low-income families are facing right now. This has brought a renewed examination of which efforts have successfully kept families afloat and where we are falling short.

What is abundantly clear is that too many Maine children and families are struggling to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. As a Dec. 21 op-ed contributor accurately noted, “for many children, returning to pre-COVID normal is not a promising future.” The number of children and families in Maine living with economic insecurity was too high even before the pandemic hit. The crisis has not only worsened the economic situation with lost jobs and income but also has created a level of stress from which many families will take a long time to recover.

With its far-reaching repercussions, the pandemic has also underscored the interdependence of the systems that families depend on – while exposing the vulnerabilities of those same systems. For a family to run smoothly, a series of connected gears must turn simultaneously. In the last few months, many gears have stopped, slowing down others in turn or grinding them to a halt altogether. How can parents work if their children can’t be in school or child care? How can families keep their children safe if they can’t pay rent? How can students learn virtually if so many don’t have access to technology or the internet?

In this new year there is an opportunity for our state to regroup, recover and rebuild – not just from the pandemic, but also from the systemic barriers and siloed responses that have long hampered Maine families. We can better support families with strategies that consider the wholistic needs of the family and how those needs intersect. This is often referred to as the “two-generation approach.” This approach is a nationally recognized model for helping whole families succeed by supporting parents and their children simultaneously. Over the last 10 years, it’s been used in all corners of the state and, thanks to the nonprofit organizations that practice it, has made an incredible difference in the lives of many Maine families.

In Washington County, adult students are earning college-level credit as their young children learn from Head Start educators. In Bangor, coaches help public housing residents work toward career and education goals while their children access quality after-school programming. In Portland, women in substance use recovery and their children receive supports from counselors and access to post-secondary credentials. Across these and other programs, parents have cleared barriers that kept them from advancing in their education and careers; children have benefited from quality early education and relationships with caring adults, and families have achieved greater financial stability and overall well-being.

These strategies work because they are comprehensive, coordinated and centered on whole families, rather than individuals alone. Last summer, a policy brief from the foundation outlined how the lessons learned from this family-by-family work in Maine have the potential to yield a broader impact on issues of the utmost importance to our state’s future – such as strengthening our workforce, addressing poverty and ensuring that the next generation of Mainers has the best chance for success.

So before we close the book on 2020, let’s take a hard look at what it has taught us about the interconnected needs of families – and how those lessons can drive policy and practice. Let’s use strategies that have worked here in Maine and elsewhere to move families forward in 2021 and beyond.


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