College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences

Maine Scholars Begin Yearlong Newspaper Series on Struggling Mainers

September 19, 2013

Contact: Jeanne Curran, (207) 780-4198

PORTLAND, Maine – Taking academia directly into the public forum, two prominent Maine scholars intend to look more deeply at how Maine citizens are faring in the current economy.

Luisa Deprez, University of Southern Maine professor of sociology, and Sandra Butler, University of Maine professor of social work, are writing a yearlong series of newspaper articles which will profile Maine people who are struggling to make ends meet, put food on the table, pay their housing costs, put gas in their car and keep themselves and their families healthy – Maine residents who have aspirations, are working, have worked or are seeking work, and are trying to provide for their families.

The monthly series will begin by profiling people who will be affected by Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of the bill to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). As a result of this veto, as many as 70,000 Maine citizens on Jan. 1, 2014, will not be able to access affordable health care. It also means that Maine is refusing federal money to provide that access as well as foregoing almost 5,000 jobs and millions of dollars in new investments.

Titled “The People Next Door,” the series is expected to debut on Saturday, Sept. 28, in the new Maine Review section of the Bangor Daily News (BDN). Both professors think the articles show how Maine scholarship can be applied to real-life situations. While the series will look at an array of issues faced by Maine residents, initial articles will focus bluntly and directly on interviews with Mainers who are struggling because of LePage’s decision. 

“The idea is to give a picture of people and what they’re up against and what they’re doing to secure their families,” Deprez said during a recent interview. “I really do believe that we have captured the essence of peoples’ lives, the struggles they are encountering, the extent to which they are active participants in enhancing their own lives.”

Butler said she thought that the series would be eye opening regarding the impact of the veto, which has taken away health insurance coverage for 70,000 Mainers.

“This decision, resulting from the Governor's veto -- and the Legislature's inability to override that veto -- will have dire consequences that we believe the public and legislators need to understand,” she said. “The title of the series indicates that the people who will be profiled are our neighbors, not so different from ourselves, and they are hurting.

“Basically we are doing some public education which we hope contributes to the effort to change this policy decision in the next session of the Legislature,” Butler said.

"We're glad readers will gain information about how certain policies touch the lives of Maine residents,” said Erin Rhoda, BDN editorial page editor. “Sometimes wrangling over legislation can seem distant and abstract, so it's important to bring the issues home."

The yearlong series is an outgrowth of the Scholars Strategy Network, a national coalition of scholars who take their research into the public forum by addressing policy issues. SSN members present the implications of their research in clear and concise ways, sharing it with media organizations, journalists and bloggers. Representing different points of view, all SSN participants are committed to good public policy-making, responsive democratic government and citizen engagement.

In Maine, Deprez and Amy Fried, UM professor of political science and a regular BDN blogger, are the regional SSN co-directors. The Maine contingent is composed of 17 scholars from a number of Maine higher-educational institutions. Deprez also recently help found the Hawaii network and is featured this month on the SSN “September Scholar Spotlights.”

The network, Deprez said, is dedicated to using scholarship to enhance both national debates and the local community, as well as to enhance opportunities for people overall.

“While faculty often have many venues for their work, the choice of contributing to the well-being of people in our local communities is one that is too often over-looked,” Deprez said. “We and those of us in the SSN network are trying to change that.”

Looking to expand the presence of the Maine SSN, Deprez and Fried approached the BDN a year ago about doing regular op-ed pieces for the newspaper. Since then, Maine SSN scholars have been writing bi-weekly articles for the newspaper, said Deprez, who organizes the op-ed pieces. The topics range from the Paycheck Fairness Act, which was defeated in Congress, to immigration reform to older co-workers.

“We are trying to address issues that are timely in the state of Maine and issues in which we have expertise,” Deprez said. “It’s a way of extending the Scholars Strategy Network into the state and a way of exposing scholarship to the state of Maine in a way people can understand.”

The USM professor said the response to the op-eds as been “absolutely amazing,” with readers beginning to look for the articles. Legislators also are reading the op-ed pieces, Deprez said, and organizations around the state have been asking for the scholars as guest speakers.

“We had established a very good relationship with the BDN and considered what else we could do to contribute to the state,” Deprez continued. The outcome is the yearlong series that will “position peoples’ plights for consideration during the next legislative session” in January, she said.

As proposed, the series of up-close interviews will “help Maine people understand that this is happening to people, people who are our neighbors or live in our town,” Deprez said. “The least we could do is to use this outlet to focus further evidence of the need that exists out there.”

Each article, written and edited jointly by Deprez and Butler, who have collaborated for more than 15 years, will feature an interview with a family or individual and include a sidebar on the facts and statistics relevant to the policy under discussion. The scholars aren’t paid or reimbursed in any way for their work, Deprez emphasized, nor do they work for the newspaper.

Deprez acknowledged that she and Butler were not journalists, “but we’re damn good writers and good interviewers,” she said, smiling broadly.

“What I hope will be the outcome is that people will be more compassionate for the people living near them and then more compassionate about the many policy decisions that are significantly impacting our lives,” the USM professor said. “ … I’m hoping that by the way in which we portray these people, the reader will come to his or her own conclusion about their worthiness, their plight, and ask the question: Is this in fact what we as a state believe is the right way to treat citizens?”

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