EDITORIAL: Poverty report is wake-up call for legislative action

·4 min read

Sep. 23—EDITOR'S NOTE — This editorial has been altered from its original form to reflect a correction on the group who commissioned the report.

A troubling report on the state of local poverty released earlier this week should serve as an embarrassment for the region's lawmakers, who continue to sit on a pile of taxpayer money that could go toward addressing the problem.

First, the sobering news. The report, commissioned by the Massachusetts Association for Community Action, shows that the gap between the haves and have-nots has continued to grow in Massachusetts, even as the economy continues to grow. The rich are getting richer. The rest of us, not so much.

"The problem of poverty is not that our economy has tanked," said Nancy Wagman, the author of the report and a director at the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center (MassBudget). "Overall, our economy still grows."

However, it is not growing for everyone. The top tier, fueled by the growth of the high-tech sector, continues to thrive. Meanwhile, wages for the middle and lower classes have remained stagnant since the 1980s. The result is one of the most pronounced wage gaps in the country. As a result, full generations are being left behind. The COVID-19 pandemic, of course, has only made things worse.

In Salem, for example, 30% of residents are poor or hover at the poverty line, the report found. Overall, 41% of the city's children live in poverty. In Gloucester, 21% percent of the overall population and 27% of children live below the poverty line. In Lawrence, the numbers are 49% and 61%. Overall, Essex County lags behind the rest of the state, with a median income of $81,000 to $83,000; the statewide median is $84,000.

The disparities are even more striking when race is taken into account, Wagman said.

White residents in the state have seen an annual median income of about $91,000. But for Black residents, the median income is only $54,000. That drops to $48,000 for Hispanic and Latino residents.

Poverty, of course, makes itself felt in innumerable ways. It means being food insecure. It means not having enough money to run the air conditioner in summer or the heat in winter, and not having reliable access to the internet for schoolwork or job applications. It means often substandard health care and a reliance on spotty public transportation to get to and from work and school.

Turning the tide of poverty is a multi-pronged, community-wide effort, advocates say.

"This report continues to clearly outline clearly that in order to solve the issue of poverty, it can't just be one person and one organization in the fight," said Beth Francis, ECCF's president and CEO. "It can't just be the state or municipal government. It can't just be the federal agencies, and it can't just be philanthropy working to end the problem. The real solution lies in us all coming together."

That is certainly true. It is also true, however, that the state is sitting on an unprecedented pile of cash, thanks to COVID-era federal aid and better than expected tax receipts. The surplus is in the billions, not millions, and Gov. Charlie Baker's administration is already making plans to return $2.94 billion in checks and direct deposits to taxpayers this fall.

That still leaves billions for the Legislature's economic development bill, which was all but approved before lawmakers quit for the summer on July 31. The massive investment plan also promised to return billions to taxpayers, but also offered more permanent changes that promise to help lift more Bay State residents out of poverty. That included tax breaks for renters, seniors, parents and caretakers and a boost for struggling community hospitals that provide care in cities with some of the highest rates of poverty. The bill also set aside hundreds of millions of dollars to be used to spur the development of affordable and workforce housing.

Unfortunately, the House and Senate couldn't come to agreement on the last details before formal legislative sessions ended, leaving hundreds of thousands of the state's neediest residents in the lurch. And it doesn't sound like much progress is being made toward a solution.

House Ways and Means Chariman Aaron Michlewitz said lawmakers may not return to formal session to take up the economic development bill, saying it was "too early to tell."

That's not the news residents of Essex County — or the rest of the state — deserve to hear.

Francis is right when she says we are all responsible for helping address the region's poverty problem. It's time for the Legislature to do its part.