Clare Higgins: Legislative workhorses needed to help address region’s problems

  • Left, Aaron Vesa, Eric Lesser, Adam Hinds, Mindy Domb, Dan Carey, Natalie Blais, Lindsay Sabadosa, Joe Comerford, at the 7th annual Congregational B’nai Israel Legislative Luncheon in February. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 5/24/2019 11:44:13 PM
Modified: 5/24/2019 11:44:01 PM

Recently, state Sen. Adams Hinds wrote a column for the Boston Globe titled, “The income inequality problem Massachusetts ignores.”

He summarizes the sad statistics that are the realities of life in the western part of the commonwealth, including dramatically lower median incomes in Berkshire, Franklin, and Hampden counties. These same counties have the dubious distinction of holding the bottom three slots for median household income on the list of Massachusetts counties. They are also below the national median household income.

Next up is Suffolk County (Boston, Chelsea, Revere and Winthrop), and Bristol County (including Fall River, New Bedford and Taunton). Hampshire County is sixth on the list.

The four western counties cover 35 percent of the state’s land, encompassing 829,072 square miles of mountains and rivers, small towns, and big and small cities. We love the beauty of our region and treasure its history.

But we have challenges. Springfield and Holyoke are the poorest cities in the commonwealth. North Adams isn’t far behind. In fact, 13 of the poorest communities in the state are in the four western counties. There are no western Massachusetts communities in the 25 richest communities. I expect that is not a surprise to readers.

While housing costs are very high in eastern Massachusetts, we are not far behind. The housing cost challenge is exacerbated by the abysmal public transit system in our region. Over 52 percent of Pioneer Valley Transit Authority riders are low income, compared to 32 percent of MBTA passengers.

There is a fascinating website called The Housing and Transportation (H+T®) Affordability Index, which looks at the question of affordability when the cost of housing and transportation are factored at together as a percentage of income. According to H+T, moderate income Boston residents spend 13 percent of their income on transportation, while moderate income Greenfield residents spend 25 percent. So, even if Greenfield rents are lower, transportation pushes the H+T combined costs to 57 percent of their income. A Bostonian is paying 45 percent of their moderate income.

Our region has big challenges. The population is aging and school populations are shrinking. Communities are struggling to pay for services for both children and seniors. The opioid crisis has left almost no one untouched. Our public education system (including early education and care) is underfunded. The list goes on and on.

I recently went to a regional engagement session in Springfield organized by the Baker-Polito administration. They are traveling around the state to connect with community and economic development leaders as they put together an economic development strategy for the next four years. In our session, the overwhelming message was transportation, housing, infrastructure and living wage jobs.

The challenges we face are complex. Communities can’t solve them on their own or for themselves alone. We will each be more successful if we all have opportunities to succeed.

And that might be uncomfortable for some of us. The upper Valley needs to be much more welcoming to people of color. We need to make sure that affordable housing is available across the entire region. People in recovery or who were incarcerated need to be welcome back into our communities.

Poverty is not just in Hampden County, and it is a bit racist to assume that it is. The numbers don’t lie. Too many people across western Mass are being left behind.

But western Massachusetts has only 12 percent of the state’s population. And we’re not the wealthy 12 percent. We have fewer representatives in the Legislature because of our smaller population. All of western Massachusetts has 21 representatives. Suffolk County has 19; Middlesex County has 37. All of western Massachusetts has five state senators; Suffolk County has five and Middlesex has 12.

Building stronger communities is really a team sport. And so is legislating. Legislator’s collaborative relationships with other constituents, advocates, local elected and appointed officials, administration officials, Statehouse staff, leadership, and their legislative colleagues are key to success wherever the district.

Western Massachusetts needs a strong legislative team; one that will have the back of their colleagues for the good of our region. Of course, there will be disagreements, but we need our delegation to put western Massachusetts first. That’s the only way our elected representatives can get what is needed for our 12 percent to thrive.

When John Olver ran for re-election to Congress in 1996, he promised to be a workhorse, not a show horse. And he was. Show horses don’t win races. I’m looking for legislative workhorses, for elected officials that put outcomes ahead of their image. That’s the only way for our region to win.

Clare Higgins, of Northampton, a former mayor of the city, is executive director of the nonprofit Community Action Pioneer Valley. She can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.


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