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Only Steps Forward: Asylum-seeking families benefit from city, community support

By Jonathan P. LaBonte

Mayor of Auburn

Recent news reports have brought up the expenditure trends of the City of Auburn’s General Assistance program. In particular, those reports are calling attention to the mix of current citizens of Auburn to those living here and seeking asylum from their home country.

By making statements like “the budget is up 18% over this time last year,” those reports are attempting to sensationalize the issue.

Rather than feeding into the sound bites, I wanted to offer some context so, as a community, we might discuss this issue.

First and foremost, we must recognize that Auburn does have a poverty problem. While we may often be seen as the “more well to do” of the Twin Cities, the fact remains that we share the demographic challenges of Lewiston.

In the last decade, Auburn has seen the fastest rise in families needing food stamps of any of Maine’s largest cities, with over 25% of our families receiving this help. And while the challenge took root in our in-town neighborhoods decades ago, it is deepening as other societal challenges are added to the mix.

The cycle of poverty established a social safety net, funded by a mix of government funds (local, state, federal) and private donations. And for those seeking asylum, left unable to work due to federal regulations, seeking a community where they can find shelter and food becomes the top priority.

The social safety net in some states and communities, like Maine and Lewiston-Auburn, provides them the option of coming here.

For the facts on the current situation, let’s look at the current fiscal year and the most recently completed one. Last year, we budgeted $75,722 to administer the General Assistance program and made available $108,989 for assistance for those residents that qualify. This year, the Auburn City Council made a slight decrease in both lines for that department, allocating $73,696 for administration and $97,778 for assistance.

For context, as we are often compared to our sister city, Lewiston spent about eight times more than what Auburn spent in support of the General Assistance program in the last fiscal year.

As of the January 2017 financial reports, seven months into the fiscal year, we had expended about 65% of the budget. The assistance for the poor portion of our budget, not counting the administration of the program, accounts for less than one quarter of one percent.

Even if the Auburn City Council needs to make a transfer among departments to ensure no account is overdrawn, we are still talking about a fraction of one percent of municipal services (not counting the school budget).

We are fortunate to have a program director in General Assistance that knows of other programs and resources to refer those seeking help before the city program is utilized. General Assistance was designed to be a place of last resort for individuals and families.

Auburn has many community groups that operate food pantries and raise money on their own to serve families and individuals in need. The High Street Congregational Church, for example, offers a weekly food pantry service on Thursdays and serves dozens of families each week and it is managed by volunteers. Families are limited to one visit each month to ensure as many people are served as possible. A number of asylum-seeking families have benefited from this support.

Two key components of General Assistance that are not often included in news reports include that the program requires working for the benefits, in addition to a payback provision once you have the means to do so. A number of the asylum seekers receiving support are taking on administrative tasks within city departments, putting their skills to work and allowing staff to take on other projects at the same time.

The situation isn’t perfect, since these new residents are prohibited by the federal government from taking paying jobs, and we know the city as a whole has a financial resources challenge. We should recognize that immigration to our community can help add numbers to our declining workforce.

This is an opportunity for the city to chart new partnerships to encourage philanthropy and private giving to help support these new residents and not just expect the property taxpayer to take care of it.

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