A report released this week in Britain, intended to assess the basis for widespread perceptions, may create a framework for similar assessment in Lewiston-Auburn. The study, requested by the UK-based Equality and Human Rights Commission, was titled “Social housing allocation and immigrant communities” and investigated the use of public housing by immigrants.

While an ocean away, and driven by different forces on a different scale, human nature and public perception seem to follow a similar logic in Britain as Maine with respect to benefits provided to new immigrants. In Britain, as this research sought to better understand, there has been growing perception of unfair housing benefits being provided to immigrants or foreigners. Established residents, perhaps concerned that other needy citizens were being overlooked, helped fuel that speculation.

European immigration policies were central in this evaluation of immigrants and public perception. This study reviewed complete data from established residents, new immigrants and immigrants having lived in the UK for a longer period, which shed light on the transition that occurs. From this reasoned data and the longer perspective, comes better policy than anything based on empty, divisive rhetoric or misplaced compassion.

The study found a number of key points, including: a direct connection between income levels and family size as whether UK residents lived in public housing. In many cases, immigrants with traditionally larger families were more likely to qualify for assistance than immigrants without children, for example.

After a certain period of time, however, the study found the percentage of immigrants in public housing was close to the percentage of established residents in public housing. There were noted differences in the percentages of those populations that were eventually buy property versus moving into private rentals, though this was more closely related to education and income, than pure time.

Beyond the data crunching, researchers conducted focus groups with established UK residents to evaluate their understanding of support for immigrants. It was found that a view that immigrants had entrenched preferences when applying for services came from one, small local incident with an immigrant that became a rumor the behavior was widespread among the population. It became clear the hurdles in “myth-busting” are high.

Unless you have been living elsewhere, like under a rock, or avoid conversations that can sometimes be awkward or uncomfortable, it is clear an undercurrent exists in Lewiston-Auburn related to the population of new immigrants from a variety of areas, particularly Somalis.

While formal focus groups have not likely been done, as in the UK, to evaluate local perceptions of public assistance for immigrants, those perceptions exist and, for better or worse, have taken root. What we also lack here, unfortunately, is a scientific study of the actual use of public services by the entire population, both current residents and new immigrants, to clarify for policymakers and public officials what the facts are.

The study in the UK made one strong point: “Myth busting interventions to dispel tensions about migration appear ineffective,” and that attempts to bust myths often reinforce the prejudice. In short, trying to convince people their perceptions are wrong just fuels the divisiveness. This has in fact been happening here in L-A. The UK study offered an alternative to overcome this, though, and that was to change the topic of debate.

With this, I couldn’t agree more.

Let’s start with a full assessment of the population in this region and its use of social services including general assistance, public or subsidized housing, and others. What can we learn from those that have used these services or continue to? Are there any trends? Don’t focus just on one ethnic group, look at all of us, as one community.

The report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission detailed the policies for qualifying for public assistance and the historic rationale for the evolution of those policies over time. Let’s do a similar assessment here of that framework locally. Is the intent of a social welfare safety net clearly understood by the public and policymakers? How do we quantify the success of these programs? Are they a hand up, or a hand out?

Our new immigrants are a central component of the future of this community and it time to change the topic of debate.

Jonathan LaBonte of New Auburn is a columnist for the Sun Journal and an Androscoggin County commissioner. E-mail: [email protected]

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