Greg Kesich: Poverty in Portland should be top issue in mayoral campaign

The crowds will hit Monument Square today, with people lining up outside farmers’ stalls to pay top dollar for the kind of fresh, ripe produce that you can only dream about the rest of the year.

The Wednesday farmers market has become a summer phenomenon, great for the farmers, great for local shops and restaurants, great for the customers.

But how many people think that just a few blocks down Elm Street, other people will be lining up outside the soup kitchen, or a few hours later, lining up to get a place to sleep? And like the farmers market, the lines get longer all the time.

Each set of lines shows one side of Portland, Maine, in 2011.

Yes, it’s the economic engine of the state, a place where people want to move to or visit. It’s also the state’s largest social services hub, the place of last resort for people who need help.

Portland may have more gourmet restaurants than any other community in Maine, but it also has the most poverty and people who need help. And while the federal and state governments look like they are going to pull back support, it will be up to the people of Portland to do more – or live with the consequences.

This is the question for the 15 men and women who want to be our first elected mayor in nearly 90 years: What are they going to do about it?

The race starts today, but so far we haven’t heard much serious talk about the city being at a crossroads. You could start to think that we are going to have farmers markets 365 days a year if we just got a little more economic development or maybe some light rail. Some of the most progressive politicians in town keep wasting their time and the city’s reputation by pushing for the relaxation of marijuana laws. (Which may be a perfectly reasonable thing to consider, but in the fourth year of an economic downturn that has destroyed people’s lives, putting this issue as a top priority is just selfish.)

So what are we facing? More people in poverty who need more help.

Demand at the city’s homeless shelters has increased 20 percent two years in a row. In July, 362 individuals, including whole families, spent at least a night in a shelter.

The homeless are not the only people who need help. Demand for General Assistance (mostly funded by the state) to pay for rent, heat, food and medications for people who have nowhere else to turn remains at historic highs.

The city’s workfare program, for able-bodied unemployed adults, has grown five-fold since 2008.

The effects go even further. Just under 80 percent of the students in the city’s two lowest-performing elementary schools, Riverton and East End, come from families with incomes low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. That statistic and the schools’ test scores are not a coincidence. A childhood with the stress of poverty can be as traumatic as abuse or neglect, and the effects don’t go away when the school bell rings.

Talking about these issues probably won’t be a way to attract votes, but this is one area in which a popularly elected mayor could really make a difference. Opinions are divided, both in neighborhoods and on the City Council, on what the city’s response should be. Some argue that the city is doing too much already, and that if it reduced services, the need would go away.

That would be the wrong approach. When it comes to feeding people and sheltering them from the weather, there can only be one response: Do it because it’s the right thing to do.

Demand for services is not increasing because people have gotten lazier or craftier, or whatever Gov. LePage and the Maine Heritage Policy Center claim. It’s because there are as many 80,000 Maine people looking for work, and the economy is slow to create jobs.

Until that changes, churches, nonprofit social service agencies and the city are going to have to work harder to take on the responsibility that the state is shirking. It’s also important that the city take on this challenge before it becomes overwhelmed.

You can’t have the farmers market and the restaurants and all the things that make Portland such a livable city without making sure that people who need it have a place to live and enough to eat. There is a delicate balance, and once it tips, the city stops being a place people want to be if they have the choice.

Other cities have taken on issues like homelessness and have turned low-performing schools in low-income neighborhoods around. It takes teamwork, communication and leadership, which are exactly what we should be looking for in our first elected mayor.

The field has been announced. Between now and Nov. 8, it’s up to the voters to look at these candidates to see where they stand.


Greg Kesich is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6481, or: