A look into the lives of Maine families facing poverty
When Genevieve, a mother in Kittery, had her power turned off in May, she ran an extension cord from her car to the house to power a DVD player and 12-inch monitor so she and her son could watch “The Fantastic Mr. Fox.”
While the movie wasn’t a necessity, Genevieve was trying to create a sense of normalcy for her son while also dreading that all the food in the fridge would go bad if she opened the door, knowing she didn’t have the funds to replace the groceries. It stretched her budget, but she also got them each a burger and fries to share for dinner that night.
This story was shared as part of a photo series titled “Beyond Survival“, created by Maine Equal Justice (MEJ), to depict how poverty plays out across the state and show that Genevieve isn’t alone in her challenges to keep the lights on and food in the house. The photos give a glimpse into the lives of Mainers who could benefit from a recent bill MEJ is advocating for to increase support for families in need.
Genevieve submitted two photos for the series. One was the extension cord hanging out her window, and the other was pages of notes she took from all her calls with the power company trying to work out how to pay the balance she accumulated from last winter’s heating bills.
“Yes, we know there’s poverty in Maine,” said Allina Diaz, a community organizer. “Yes, we know that times are tough right now, but it’s getting people to see the humanity and the vulnerability of people who are experiencing it every day.”
People normally hold those experiences so close to their chests, Diaz said, so it takes a willingness to be vulnerable to share them. And the visual element of the photographs made it feel different than other story collections.
“The beauty of the photo contest is that people who are seeing it can relate,” Diaz said, adding that she saw her own experience mirrored in Genevieve’s photo. “They can say, ‘That’s what my notebook looks like’.”
Like the title implies, MEJ wants to help families do more than just survive, Diaz said. Constantly focusing on how to pay for food, or make sure the electricity isn’t turned off, leaves little room to think about advancing a career or going back to school.
The point of story collections like Beyond Survival, is to “bring policy down to where regular people are,” Diaz said.
MEJ, a nonprofit civil legal aid and economic justice organization, is working to improve the assistance programs in Maine that support families, but often aren’t enough.
For example, last legislative session, there was a bill proposed to expand eligibility and increase the dollar amount granted through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). It was carried over, so it will be heard during the upcoming session that starts in January.
In 2020, only one in five Maine children in poverty received monthly income support through TANF. And currently, a family of three gets a maximum of $665 per month, according to a fact sheet from MEJ.
The 11-photo series, which illustrates the exact needs that could be addressed through the bill, will continue to be published over the next few weeks, Diaz said. Families will also be invited to share their stories in front of the legislature.