By Benjamin B. Downing, Special to the Eagle
A little over seven years ago, I kicked off my first campaign for the state Senate on the steps of Pittsfield City Hall. That day I said our task as a community was not only build a bridge to the 21st century, but to make sure that everyone had the opportunity to cross it. Since 2006 we have made significant progress on building that bridge. Together, we have:
* Invested $75 million to expand access to broadband Internet, with another $40 million on the way.
* Invested billions in clean energy and energy efficiency initiatives, increasing our solar energy portfolio from 2MW of solar to more than 400MW, making Massachusetts first in the nation on energy efficiency and creating nearly 80,000 new jobs.
* MCLA's Center for Science & Innovation is a reality, BCC's physical campus has seen significant upgrades, and the first steps have been taken to connect the Berkshires to New York City through passenger rail.
But we have not done enough to ensure everyone has the opportunity to cross that bridge. We haven't done enough to reduce poverty, create opportunity and minimize inequality. We need to do more and we need to do better.
Before talking about poverty and opportunity, it's important to remember what "living in poverty" actually means, financially.
Today in Massachusetts the poverty line for a single individual is $11,720; and it is $23,283 for a family of four. According to the Crittenton Women's Union, in order to be considered economically independent and survive without any public assistance, a single adult living in Berkshire County needs to earn $22,224 and a family of four would require $61,428 -- 90 percent and 163 percent above the state poverty line, respectively.
Since 2006-07, the poverty rate in Massachusetts has increased 20 percent, from 9.9 percent to 11.9 percent, meaning 845,000 of our family members, friends and neighbors live in poverty. This increase in Massachusetts has mirrored national trends, with Massachusetts faring better simply because the national poverty rate started higher.
In 2010, the national poverty rate hit 15.1 percent, a high point since 1993, where it has remained since. Perhaps most troubling within these statistics is the finding that child poverty, generally higher than the overall population, has increased faster in Massachusetts over the Great Recession and post-recession period, rising 25 percent from 12 to 15 percent.
While the national and statewide data should be reason enough for action, the data in Western Massachusetts, Berkshire County in particular, should alarm us and compel community leaders to make poverty the first issue discussed when talking about challenges these regions face. The poverty rate in the Berkshires is 10 percent higher than the statewide average, and both Pittsfield (15.9 percent poverty, 49 percent above state) and North Adams (17.2 percent poverty, 61 percent above state) are far above that. Five out of 14 counties in Massachusetts have poverty rates above the state average -- Berkshire, Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin and Suffolk Counties. These numbers are not simply abstractions; rather, we know they have real impacts on our community: financial impacts, economic impacts and moral impacts.
Poverty has negative impacts on nearly every area of public policy associated with quality of life and community development. The National Center for Education Statistics has reported that the dropout rate of low-income families is 4.5 times higher than for all others. Poverty is correlated with lower academic achievement and educational attainment. Poverty is linked with negative health outcomes, including higher rates of obesity, and public health challenges, like increased rates of teen pregnancy. This is not to say poverty guarantees these outcomes, as it is not deterministic, but it does increase the odds, in ways that impact real lives.
Poverty also has real costs to federal, state and local budgets. This is not a controversial statement. Falling below, or close to, the federal poverty line makes one eligible for subsidized health care, housing, school meals, food stamps and welfare, among other programs. That being said, it does not guarantee all of those living in poverty will receive each of these benefits. In fact, most do not.
Often times the only discussion about poverty is about how to limit these costs, generally through reducing benefits or limiting abuse. I agree we should eliminate abuse of any kind. A dollar wasted is a dollar that can't be used to help someone who is working hard and playing by the rules. But that can't be where our discussion of poverty begins and ends. The best way to reduce the financial impact of poverty is to rededicate ourselves to actually reducing poverty.
Ignoring poverty, failing to talk about this issue, which touches every other issue, will not make it go away. The only thing that will solve the problem is a concerted effort to create jobs and opportunities that will help everyone in our community realize economic independence. Only by reducing poverty will our communities and our commonwealth be able to say that everyone has the opportunity to make the most of their God given talents.
Only by reducing poverty will we be able to say everyone can cross that bridge to the 21st century economy. That is our work and that must be our focus in the coming days, months and years.
Senator Benjamin B. Downing (D- Pittsfield) represents the 52 western communities of the Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin & Hampden District. This is his fourth term in the Massachusetts Senate. He serves as the Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities & Energy and the chair of the Senate Committee on Bills in the Third Reading.