|Tony Cipollone, president of the John T. Gorman Foundation, brings a track record of success in fighting the root causes of poverty in Atlanta and Baltimore. (Photo by C. Parrish)
At 7:30 a.m. on a cold morning in Freeport last week, it was standing room only for those who came to hear Tony Cipollone discuss his targeted approach to breaking the cycle of poverty in Maine.
Cipollone, the first executive director of the John T. Gorman Foundation, which was started by L.L. Bean's grandson to address problems associated with poverty in Maine, successfully used strategic approaches to help transform disadvantaged neighborhoods in Baltimore and Atlanta during his two decades at the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
In Maine, Cipollone is working to bring business leaders and non-profits together, pulling in the same direction to focus on the critical levers to reduce poverty and its impacts.
The key role that business and non-profits can play in Maine is to focus on improving family stability overall, Cipollone told those attending the Leadership Unplugged breakfast meeting hosted by the Maine Development Foundation on November 21.
Improving Family Stability Essential in Maine
Using data analysis that reveals key transition points in a child's life (such as third grade, when those who do not meet literacy levels become four times more likely to drop out of school later) and research on what works to effectively reduce poverty, combined with "hundreds of conversations in all Maine counties," Cipollone identified four strategic priorities for the Gorman Foundation to focus on in Maine:
• early childhood education
• helping vulnerable older youth transition into stable young adulthood
• working to help stabilize disadvantaged families so their children are less likely to fall behind
• and working to allow low-income seniors to stay in their homes as they age
To those ends, the Gorman Foundation is granting funding and working in partnership with others to intervene in what Cipollone characterized as "a continuous loop of lousy outcomes that disproportionately plague far too many of our disadvantaged and vulnerable Mainers."
Stress related to not having enough money to pay the bills or save money for lean times creates a family atmosphere where it is more difficult for young children to succeed in school than it is for children from stable families, said Cipollone.
"These are the families that are also likely to have the toughest time caring for an aging parent who needs their support in order to remain at home," he said.
"We know that poor children who do not academically succeed by age 8 are likely to fail in later years and are far more likely to become that older youth who struggle to become successful and independent adults."
"And poor, struggling older youth who don't get opportunities to successfully connect with education and employment are far too likely to become the new generation of parents without prospects and resources to adequately provide care for the new generation of kids."
The Economic Implications of Doing Nothing
The impacts of poverty affect all Mainers, socially and economically, said Cipollone.
In Maine, there is an 18-percent graduation gap among low-income youth who have access to free and reduced lunch and those who don't, he said.
The data show that disadvantaged youth are more likely to be homeless or to end up in the costly criminal justice system and are less likely to go on to post-high school education, he said.
"In rural Maine counties, the rate of youth who are 16 to 24 years old who are not working and not in school can be as high as 19 percent," said Cipollone. Similarly, parents in the same areas have the hardest time in the state finding jobs that pay enough to successfully provide for their families, he said.
"Of the 150,000 working families in Maine - that's those that rely on salary and wages for their income - more than 9,000 of them are living in poverty, in spite of being employed, making it far more difficult to meet basic needs or have resources that can tide them over during tough times."
"And we know that among our seniors, those with the lowest incomes struggle the most," said Cipollone.
In Maine, 44 percent of seniors are living below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, which is 10 percent more than the rest of the state's population, and more than 12 percent are living below the poverty line ($11,670 annually for one, $15,730 for two in the same household), according to Cipollone. Again, the highest numbers are in rural areas, which creates additional challenges for providing housing, transportation, health services, and social interaction.