PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Poverty was the topic of conversation on Friday to help the Berkshire Community Action Council gauge the needs in the community.
Community leaders and experts led a panel Friday morning at the Berkshire Athenaeum to help spark a conversation among participants focused on poverty and its different catalysts.
“We are all interested in working on the destabilizing effects poverty is having on our community and so we hope that we will get some good information here,” BCAC Executive Director Deborah Leonczyk said. “So please give us your ideas, your suggestions. Give us your experiences we need to hear it all.”
She said as the federally designated anti-poverty agency in the county, every three years BCAC must “take the pulse” of the community and find out what the needs are. This will inform the action plan for the next three years.
First, a panel of eight experts and community leaders talked about assets and programs in the county as well as identified challenges in their various fields and interests.
State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli tackled jobs and noted there are 1,300 unfilled jobs in the county with online job search websites claiming even more.
He said as a tourist-based economy, many of these jobs are in hospitality that may not be attractive to all but still important job opportunities. He said there is also a need for a skilled workforce, stating that General Dynamics would hire between 150 and 200 engineers “yesterday” if they were available.
“Berkshire County is one of the only counties in the commonwealth that actually has to import employees. We have the jobs we just don’t have a skilled workforce,” he said. “We run the full gamut to hospitality to engineering and everything in between. The jobs are here, we just need to make people aware.”
He said Berkshire County is attractive from the outside looking in with a beautiful landscape, cultural amenities, and a low cost of living many are moving in. He said as a county a better job needs to be done at fostering this perspective from the inside.
Pignatelli said this starts with the schools that need to show students what opportunities they have in Berkshire County as they move toward college or the workforce. He added vocational schools are also key and offer students the ability to enter high paying stable jobs right out of high school.
He concluded by saying a job is one of the greatest social programs one can have.
Christina Maxwell, director of programs at the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, said the food insecurity rate in Berkshire County is 9.7 percent. This means 1 in 10 people are not eating stable meals. She said this number is 13 percent among children.
Fortunately, Maxwell said things are improving and Berkshire County has lower numbers compared to the rest of Western Mass.
She said Berkshire County has really stepped things up and, in 2018, affiliated services in Berkshire County served 41,000 people and moved 2.3 million pounds of food. This is 1.9 million meals.
More than 50 percent of the food bank’s offerings are fresh perishable goods that are more nutritious than can or boxed counterparts.
She said there are still challenges such as transportation, an aging population with greater needs, and climate change that will affect food access and cost. But, in general, the state is making some strides to lower food insecurity rates but this is not the case on the national level.
“The demonization of the poor and the criminalization of immigrants has not helped anybody,” Maxwell said. “It has made the stigma worse and created a chilling effect on immigrants seeking help.”
State Sen. Adams Hinds talked about transportation, which he said is really connected to all of the issues at the table.
“It is hard to overstate the connection between transportation and the problems we are facing in job access and health care and down the line,” Hinds said. “It is really a clear centerpiece and comes up every time.”
Hinds said 700,000 people in the state are below the official poverty line with even more just above it. He said this percentage is higher in Berkshire County, which faces different transportation issues than Boston.
Hinds said because the population is so spread out throughout the county a central transportation system will not work. He said there needs to be creative options such as some kind of partnership with other transportation services that can provide transportation on demand.
Jennifer Berne, vice president of academic affairs at Berkshire Community College said the county has to do a better job at getting people into higher education and moving them through it to completion.
“Higher education and poverty have had a relationship in the past history and there was always a stigma attached,” she said. “When people go to college we thought it was a pure thing that will make them better people interested in the world … we are now finding that affordable public education is the best chance at avoiding poverty.”
Berne stressed focused learning. She said those who enter college without a firm grasp on what they want to do with their education often do not finish. She said they often come back to their communities without jobs.
She said people with low income are less likely to go to college and if they do they are less likely to finish it within six years.
She said it is important to get young people to understand that a career is a pathway and inspire a sense of forward momentum. She said a job should not be the end that plants an individual at a single low wage position.
Berne cited nursing and said it is important to encourage those entering the field to continue their education and climb the ranks. They fill important roles in the community and earn a better living wage.
Brad Gordon, executive director of the Berkshire County Regional Housing Authority, spoke to housing and its importance. He held up a picture of a modest home later noting that it was his own.
“This is where my wife and I raised our sons and launched them into school and adulthood,” he said. “This house was everything and is everything to my family. It is the place that allowed us to be successful and had an immeasurable impact on my family.”
Gordon turned to data and said, in reality, it is measurable that a stable roof over someone’s head greatly improves their chances of success. The lack of a home is connected directly to the other issues at the table.
He said about a third of Berkshire County residents are renters and noted these numbers across the country increased during the Great Recession. This changed housing: with more people renting there were fewer places available for low-income families. Also with rentals in demand the prices went up.
He said a lot of renters pay more than 30 percent of their income to rent which is destabilizing.
He pointed to a study from the 1960s an article from the ’70s reporting on housing issues in the area. He said it has been an issue for some time and will take time to get out of.
Anne Nemetz-Carlson, executive director of Child Care of the Berkshires, said it is often hard to find child care and expensive that does not help those in poverty looking to go to school or get a foothold in a new career.
“The funding for child care is inadequate and people may not like it but child care really becomes a women’s issue,” she said. “If you are working in a two-family or you are a single mom, you are the person looking for child care.”
She said there are 60 registered child-care operations in Pittsfield but only six in Great Barrington. She said you would be even harder pressed to find one in more rural areas like Windsor.
The best source of child care is a relative or close friend, which is often free and a better experience for the child, Nemetz-Carlson said, and there are shared care options and friends can partner up and split child-care duty.
One of the less optimal options are just leaving a child, when they are old enough, alone at home while at work or school
She said there are the options of au pair or finding licensed child care that can cost nearly $300 a week for an infant.
There should not be a stigma attached to child care or using subsidies to pay for it, she said, referring to subsidies as scholarships — a more accurate term.
Cindy Shogry-Raimer, vice president of community development at Greylock Federal Credit Union, talked about the importance of financial literacy and programs that help teach those less budget savvy.
She said 40 percent of the U.S. population does not have access to $400 and if 59 percent of households were to lose their primary source of income, they would be “underwater” in less than three months.
She said predatory lending is also a huge problem especially for those who are not financially literate, who are already in poverty, and in need of a quick check.
She said there is no quick fix to poverty but financial literacy is a way to help people take control of their earnings and not let their earnings control them.
“Financial literacy is not going to be a cure-all and it won’t move the needle on poverty alone,” Shogry-Raimer said. “We need to augment that with support and services. There is no quick-fix, there is no magic bullet, and … moving the needle on poverty is going to take time.”
Dr. Jennifer Michaels, medical director at the Brien Center, was last to speak and said when she moved to the area 25 years ago she was amazed by the county’s beauty and friendly residents.
At first, she did not think there was a huge need for her services.
This was until 1995 when Oxycontin was released.
She said Berkshire County has the highest rate of addiction in the state and 6 percent of adults have opioid abuse disorder. She said this goes hand in hand with the high premature death rate.
The good news is that the county has come together to provide support.
“The connectedness that we all have I like to think that we are right-sized,” she said. “We all know each other we can’t hide and we don’t want to hide … we want to do the right thing.”
She said with the state-mandated medical treatment for opioid use in emergency rooms went a long way, but what furthered it was the linking up of different services in the county that help provide continued care.
She said there was still a need for more support especially recovery beds. In Pioneer Valley there is one bed for every 1,800 residents. In Berkshire County, this number is one bed for every 3,000 residents.
After the panel, breakout sessions were held allowing participants to brainstorm and address gaps and needs for their specific areas of discussion.
Each group later provided their key ideas and insights before closing for lunch.