In Bridgton, hunger is no game

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

The movie Hunger Games is playing at the Magic Lantern this week. But for many Bridgton residents, hunger is no game. It is a day-to-day reality.

A new, first-of-its-kind study of hunger in Bridgton has given voice to that reality. The cold, hard statistics it contains paint a picture of a town in the grips of systemic poverty, where the gap between the wealthy and working poor (they comprise a fifth of the total population) has widened, and where many in the middle class have become the new poor.

The study’s authors, a task force of the Lake Region Non-profit Team, hope the study will redefine the face of poverty and help to smash old stereotypes — the kind that make town meeting voters grumble when doling out money for general assistance. The fact is, the study shows that good, working people, who never needed help before, are now struggling to put food on the table — and the problem isn’t going away anytime soon.

Consider these facts:

• Bridgton has the highest proportion of total residents, 15.3%, living in poverty in Cumberland County. The rate is 10.4%. The town also rates higher than the county for food stamp usage, single mother households, and usage rates for pregnant women who get Women Infants and Children (WIC) assistance.

• 36% of Bridgton’s families do not make a living wage. In Cumberland County, the living wage means making $9.87 an hour for one person, or $36,000 a year for a family of three.

• 63% of children in schools are on the national lunch program, indicating that a large portion of Bridgton’s young working class families are at risk.

• The median household income (half earn more, half earn less) in Bridgton ($44,306) is below that of Cumberland County ($54,342) and the state ($46,541).

• One-fifth of Bridgton’s total population of 5,374 is age 65 or older, and nearly half of the town’s residents are age 45 or older.

Who are the food insecure?

The need to define the problem of hunger in Bridgton through a study became apparent to the Lake Region Non-profit Team last fall, when federal funding for the Bridgton Food Pantry was slashed by $6,000. A task force was created of people representing several non-profit entities, including St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Bridgton-Lake Region Rotary Club, the First Congregational Church in Bridgton, Bridgton United Methodist Church, the Bridgton Public Library, Bridgton Community Center and interested members of the community.

One of the first things they realized was that federal poverty guidelines weren’t a good indicator of hunger or food insecurity, which simply means “the limited ability to secure adequate food.” The federal poverty line is $18,528 annually for a family of three, yet people who make more than that often have trouble putting food on the table.

The living wage was considered a more accurate indicator, since it is defined as the income sufficient to meet a family’s basic needs. In Cumberland County, the living wage is $9.38 an hour, or $38,000 a year for a family of three.

Census data was correlated in the study with public health indicators, statistics from the Peoples Regional Opportunity Program and the town’s General Assistance usage rates. Father Craig Hacker of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, who led the effort, said they were looking for “hunger indicators,” such as the number of residents using food stamps or receiving a free or reduced lunch for their children at school. The data pointed to a food insecurity rate in Bridgton of between 25% to 33%.

“There might be as many as 36%,” he said. “And these are people who are working.”

Too embarrassed to seek help

Yet the working poor, who make up 22% of Bridgton’s total households, are the ones least likely to seek help, he said. Thirty-three percent of Bridgton’s working poor receive no state or federal public assistance, according to data from Peoples Regional Opportunity Program (PROP). They either don’t know about the town’s two food pantries, at the Bridgton United Methodist Church and St. Joseph Catholic Church, or they are too embarrassed to turn to those sources for food.

“We need to eliminate the social barriers for these people to receive help, with dignity,” Father Hacker said.

An even more alarming trend is seen when looking at just Bridgton Village, which the U.S. Census Bureau defines as a 13.5-square-mile “Census Data Place” (CDP) inside Bridgton’s total area of 67 square miles. There, the percentage of households that are food insecure is estimated at between 37% to a whopping 48%. Eighty-five percent of Bridgton’s CDP families make between $10,000 to $14,999 a year.

“This tells us that the problem is right downtown,” Father Hacker said. However, the data also shows that rural poverty is a growing problem in Bridgton, as well.

“The new people who are falling into the poverty level live outside of the CDP, which indicates that rural poverty is on the rise,” said Father Hacker. Also, population growth within the village area has not grown as fast over the past decade as the town as a whole.

“The declining line reinforces the story, that the very poor are moving to bigger cities to have access to more social services,” he said. Contrary to what some may think, Bridgton does not have a very strong safety net when it comes to social services for the needy, he added. The town has not increased its General Assistance budget to keep pace with the increasing need. The amount of funding has stayed at around $32,000 for several years.

With the study in hand, Father Hacker has been giving talks about its results wherever he’s been invited. He realizes that not everyone will agree with the picture the study paints, but that’s okay with him.

“Any way you want to challenge the data, you’ve still got a big problem,” he said. “We’re not talking facts, we’re talking correlations and trends.”

Local governments, non-profits and the “haves” need to work together to provide a better safety net for those residents who are food insecure, he said. “I didn’t say I had any solutions. What I am saying is, let’s talk about it,” he said.

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