The American Rescue Plan affords Maine the opportunity to successfully overhaul our poverty alleviation and workforce development systems to ensure greater long-term security for Maine residents. More than $6 billion will be coming into Maine that can be used to reduce financial stress, hunger, housing insecurity and health care costs, and enhance work opportunities.

But the policy and program infrastructure for poverty alleviation and workforce development needs significant reform and more effective coordination if we are to accelerate movement from poverty rolls to the good jobs and more rewarding careers that lead to long-term stability and growth. Services and supports needed to escape poverty are scattered across multiple agencies and locations. While there are standing agreements among agencies for cooperation, these intentions too often fail to materialize.

Each service program comes with unique eligibility criteria and cumbersome application processes. The arduous journey to qualification can often be long, complicated and discouraging. In the age of the internet, where powerful data systems and algorithms are working for the consumer economy, government services, particularly those serving disadvantaged populations, have failed to keep up.  The need to complete multiple applications, share histories, complete duplicative assessments and comply with multiple tracking requirements is perhaps one of the most deeply frustrating experiences for those navigating through and across an array of services delivery systems.

While burdensome to consumers, it is often frontline staff that bear the brunt of data entry and data systems maintenance. Such data systems have been largely devised to support the generation of program management and performance reports dictated by funders. As such, they have failed to serve as tools to assist consumers and frontline staff, policymakers and state administrators to better manage progress on intended pathways and the achievement of related goals and objectives, and assess the suitability of augmenting, redesigning and/or improving programs or policies.

Strategies to offset these barriers will require comprehensive and sustainable solutions in the face of complex needs of individuals and families and communities. Significant technology investments and innovations are needed if we are to deliver services more effectively and efficiently.

Yet, consumer and frontline staff are typically not included in the design and development of the information technology tools on which they depend in accessing services and performing their work. The next generation of information technologies for the human services should incorporate the ideas and needs of those who depend on and use these technology tools. Simple, categorical interventions are inadequate to make much of a dent on pulling people out of poverty and securing a stable workforce.

Given the disjointed and incremental nature of how we have legislated and implemented anti- poverty measures, it is impossible for any human being to keep track of the array of programs and services associated with the primary needs listed above. A well-constructed data management system with powerful algorithms can easily accommodate and retrieve program details and determine eligibilities from a standard application for services. Once consumers are aware of what services are available to them and what they are qualified to receive, many will be placed in a more proactive position, empowered and able to act on their own behalf.

While the intentions for comprehensive approaches to poverty alleviation are not new, they have too often failed in implementation, falling short of intended results. Previous attempts to more effectively integrate anti-poverty and workforce development programs have met with limited success. Conflicting eligibility requirements, programmatic rules and agency conflicts hamper the good intentions of those seeking out such solutions. While expensive investments in information technologies have been characteristic of human services systems, they have too often not produced the tools that frontline workers need. These investments have mostly failed to integrate programs and resources from diverse service systems. Such technologies have for the most part been designed to support administrative reporting requirements and compliance indicators.

Maine is not alone in facing the complexity of the issues and challenges of these times. While practices that work in other places may not be suitable for the state, the programs and pathways considered and implemented by other states should also not be ignored. Research and state-based and scientific studies which have done deep-dives into any one, or a complex array, of these issues must also be explored and assessed for their applicability to Maine’s challenges and limitations and potentials.

If we are to satisfy the needs of thousands to escape from poverty while supporting critical needs of employers with an abundance of job vacancies it must be holistic, intentional and aggressive. The time for lofty language of interagency agreements and endless convenings of agreeable bureaucrats crafting statements with high aims should not be taken as results.

The time has come to build the systems, infrastructure and tools that provide a platform of support for every individual to successfully navigate the journey from dependence to independence.

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 is a labor market economist and the former Director, Center for Workforce Research and Information, 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 here monthly.


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