Ben Downing: Poverty In Massachusetts

Jan 9, 2018

As the New Year begins, Governors, Mayors, and other elected officials, will deliver addresses aimed at setting the debate for the year ahead. Most will tout their previous work, all will call for one new effort or another, but few, if any,  will talk about an issue that impacts nearly every other policy - poverty.

10.4% of all Mass residents live below the poverty line. 686,597 of our friends, neighbors, co-workers and family members who don’t have income above $24,340 for a family of 4. The scope of the problem is even greater when you think about how meager that line is and how many families and individuals live just above it. Not “poor” legally, but living in poverty in nearly every other sense.

Not surprisingly, the problem is worse for children, women and people of color. This is true in Massachusetts and across the country. 13.3% of children in Massachusetts live below the poverty line, along with 11.3% of women, 20.6% of African Americans, 26.5% of Latinos.

Just as true, is that poverty has geographic trends. In and around major cities, the geography of poverty is about divides. Suffolk County, home of Boston, has a poverty rate of 19.8%, drastically higher than the state average and the 4 surrounding counties, which have poverty rates of 7.54, 7.07 , 9.7, and 11.5%. Outside of major metro areas and their suburbs, poverty rates rise. . The 4 western counties of Massachusetts have poverty rates of 13 (Berkshires), 11.7 (Franklin), 14.7 (Hampshire) and 16.9 (Hampden)

A case can be made on moral grounds alone to tackle poverty. But maybe more compelling is the idea that reducing poverty makes nearly every other issue our public leaders will work to address easier to solve. Want to address educational outcomes? Children raised in poverty hear, on average, 32 million fewer words than their better off classmates, slowing their development and starting them off behind. Want to reform criminal justice or reduce recidivism? States & other local governments have resorted to charging fees and fines to defendants and convicts throughout the criminal justice system. Criminal justice debt at best slows the ability of individuals to fully renter society and at worst, it keeps individuals locked up, not because they are guilty, but because they cannot afford to payback  penalties. Want to step in where the current federal administration is stepping back on healthcare? According to the CDC and the University of Wisconsin, poor communities have a higher premature death rate, higher rates of disabilities and are seeing their local hospitals close, while hospitals open in wealthy suburbs.

There is no avoiding poverty and its impact on our society. If our leaders want to solve the problems we ask them to solve, odds are, they will have to reduce poverty. For too long, the conventional political wisdom has told political leaders there are “no votes” in talking about poverty, let alone acting to reduce it. Hopefully, if one good thing came out of our political dialogue in 2017, its that conventional wisdom is challenged more often than it’s accepted. If that's the case, many of those States of the Commonwealth, City & State will soon shift their focus from issues that are impacted by poverty, to poverty itself. 

Ben Downing Represented the westernmost district in the Massachusetts Senate from 2006 to 2016. He is currently a vice president at Nexamp, a Massachusetts-based solar energy company, and an adjunct faculty member at Tufts University.

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