Living in a house of cards: A look back at people in Maine who are just scraping by

Sandy Butler, University of Maine, and Luisa Deprez, University of Southern Maine

Originally published in the Bangor Daily News on January 30, 2015.

Ramon Perez works full-time at a job to which he walks the 2 miles since he doesn’t have a car. Still, his family of four in Augusta struggles to make ends meet.

Helen, 45, works seven days a week caring for people with chronic health conditions but lacks health insurance herself.

Wendall Hall of Milo, who recently lost his wife of several decades to heart and lung disease and then became guardian for his nine-year-old grandson, struggles to keep them fed and properly housed.

Robert fled his native Angola and came to Maine to escape torture and death. He speaks nine languages and is fluent in English. With his wife and children, he expects to contribute to his community, but first he needs a job. Emergency funding through General Assistance enables them to stay afloat to give them that chance to succeed.

For the past 18 months, we have profiled individuals and families struggling to make ends meet in Maine. These are people we know, who live in our communities, sometimes next door to us. We often mistakenly think they’re doing OK when in fact they are not.

The complexity of living in a highly vulnerable situation too often leaves no stone in life unturned — the ability to eat, to have adequate shelter, to attend to debilitating medical conditions. Life, for most of these vulnerable Maine residents, resembles a house of cards.

But people in these difficult situations have aspirations. Many are working, have worked or are seeking work. They are trying to provide for their families. They, too, aspire to a stable life in which they are able to support themselves and their families and contribute to the communities in which they live. But right now, the difficulties they face in staying afloat are immense.

In this last installment of our series, we have returned to a few of the people we interviewed over the past year-and-a-half to see how they are doing today.

Working harder for no health coverage

Helen was an uninsured home care worker when we profiled her in October 2013. She told us then that she had struggled with many health issues for much of her life. Lacking health insurance for more than 10 years had left Helen (not her real name) with large, unpaid medical bills, affecting her credit rating.

When we first spoke with her, she would have been eligible for MaineCare if Gov. Paul LePage had not vetoed the Legislature’s efforts in 2013 and 2014 to expand coverage to more low-income individuals. When we spoke with her last month, Helen said that while she is still uninsured, she is making more money because she picked up a second job — also in home care. She now works well over 50 hours per week.

She planned to sign up for insurance this year through the Affordable Care Act’s online marketplace. Last year, she found the marketplace website confusing, and she was unable to sign up. This year, someone at the health center where she receives her medical services on a sliding fee basis of $45 per visit will help her enroll.

She knows that having health insurance will help when she needs expensive medical tests or x-rays. “I’m still having a lot of problems with my hip and my bones in general,” she said.

A student again at 51

A year ago, we profiled Kay Haslam, who returned to school in her late 40s (she’s now 51) with the help of the Competitive Skills Scholarship Program (CSSP).

When the store where she worked for 16 years closed in 2011, few job options were available in the Ellsworth area where she lives. Through the scholarship program’s lottery system, Kay was selected for one of five openings available to Hancock County residents. She began working on a business management degree two years ago.

“Things are looking good for me right now,” she said recently as she prepared for final exams. “January 13 will be my halfway mark. I’m learning a lot.

“I’m not the greatest writer or greatest in math, so I’m taking it stepping stone by stepping stone. I’m a little closer to my dream of having my own business than I was a year ago when we spoke. Thanks to CSSP, I know I will reach my goal.”

From no income to still scraping by

Our March 2014 profile of Wendall Hall, a widower raising his grandson in Milo, provoked an outpouring of response — both local and national.

After losing his wife and her monthly Supplemental Security Income (SSI) check and then being cut off of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) due to the newly imposed five-year time limit, Wendall and his grandson had lived with no income whatsoever for a year. Ultimately, Wendall qualified for SSI for himself due to physical disabilities.

Many responded with offers of toys for Wendall’s grandson, food and other assistance. The social service agency Wings for Children and Families, which had helped Wendall and his family for years, stepped in once again to organize the generous offers of help.

When we spoke to Wendall this past month, he said he was amazed by the response — and grateful.

“People out there do have a heart, you know?” he said. “People in Milo even stopped by and dropped off donations, some games. It was heart-warming.”

Since the story appeared last year, Wendall, who is in his late 50s, has met a woman with whom to share his life. “At my age, it was kind of shocking,” he said.

Things remain tight financially, especially in the winter with the cost of heat. “We just have to budget everything,” he said. “We are doing good.

“Still behind on our bills, but that is normal,” he joked. He concluded our conversation by asking that we let readers know how truly heart warmed and appreciative he was of all the donations his family received.

A number of the other subjects of our profiles were unreachable.

When we began this series our intent was to portray some of the consequences of policy decisions (both good and bad) on people in communities throughout the state. We started the series after LePage’s Medicaid expansion veto in an attempt to relate the human impact of that decision.

We cannot say, with any assurance, that people are doing well. As we move into the second term of the LePage administration — one now using the catchphrase “prosperity not poverty” — we will watch carefully the plight of Maine people to see if what the administration does this time around really changes the plight of the many Mainers who are struggling.

Sandy Butler is professor of social work and is the graduate program coordinator in the School of Social Work at the University of Maine. Luisa S. Deprez is professor and department chair of sociology and women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine. They are members of the Maine Regional Network, part of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications.

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