Jobs and the economy: In a survey of Eagle readers, it consistently topped the list of issues that voters in Berkshire County consider most pressing.
"I have a graduate degree, but I can't find a job," one reader wrote. "What's up with that? I've been unemployed since I graduated this past May."
Or, as another Eagle reader ob served: "It's the economy, stupid!!!"
In the following question-and-answer session, the three candidates in the new 1st Congressional District for the Sept. 6 Democratic primary -- incumbent U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, Middle Berkshire Register of Deeds Andrea F. Nuciforo Jr., and writer and activist Bill Shein -- outline their vision for reviving the economy locally and nationally.
The responses to questions from The Eagle have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What do you see as the most pressing fiscal issues facing the Berkshires, Western Massachusetts, and the country?
Neal: Well clearly it's on the jobs front and it's the national economy. During the Clinton years we created 22 million jobs and had an unemployment rate of 3.8 percent, and the budget had been balanced for successive years, only to see the unraveling and the undoing of the Clinton economic successes, to the point where we were staring at a $15 trillion surplus. We're now staring at a $15 trillion deficit.
Nuciforo: Unemployment and underemployment. The Massachusetts unemployment
Shein: Without question, it's the need for jobs that pay a living wage that can support a family. For 30 years, we've been in a race to the bottom on wages and benefits in Western Mas sachusetts and across the country. That's what happens when economic and tax policy continues to give ever-more advantage to large global corporations rather than the smaller, local enterprises that can form the backbone of a durable, sustainable local economy.
Q: How would you like to see Congress ad dress the aforementioned issues?
Neal: First of all, extending credit is a big deal. There's been a bit of a credit freeze, in terms of loans for people who want to buy homes, loans for people who want to start small businesses, and loans for some of the vets that want to try their hand at enterprise.
I've also been in the vanguard of using the tax code, whether it's Build America Bonds, or New Markets Tax Credit Program, or one of my issues that I've championed for many, many years in Congress, the Research and Dev elopment Tax Credit -- there isn't any state in the nation that benefits more from R&D than Massachu setts. I think using the tax code is very important.
I also think we've seen the results of what stimulus spending can do. I think extending broadband is very, very important to the hilltowns and across the whole Berkshires. You can see with the Recovery Act here, we've brought $45 million for that effort in Massachusetts, and there's lots more work like that to be done.
Nuciforo: First, as part of our national effort to restore American manufacturing, we must assure that our international trade agreements are fair to American workers and manufacturers. In many cases, these agreements have been beneficial to shareholders but have carried hugely negative impacts for workers. I will fight to assure that every bilateral and regional trade agreement include protections for Amer ican workers.
I will also support an increase in the amount of public investment into research and development. On a percentage basis, we lag behind our peer countries. By doubling the amount that we invest in R&D, we can create new jobs, generate additional tax revenue, and promote the development of the next innovative medical devices, drug and green technologies.
Likewise, we should recommit ourselves to cleaning up the toxic legacies of our industrial past. Contamination continues to impede redevelopment in Springfield, Ludlow, and certain sites in the Berkshires.
Shein: Right now, I support substantial direct investment in job creation through New Deal-style jobs programs, something we should have done more vigorously in 2009.
Legislation has been introduced that would authorize hiring several million Amer icans to work on upgrading our schools, teaching our children, staffing Head Start programs, performing green retrofits of old buildings and homes, and employing young people in a modern Civilian Conservation Corps to do work in our state and national parks and other environmental work. That direct investment in hiring would provide a multiplier effect in our economy to spur private-sector job creation.
Along with substantial reductions in defense spending, allowing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest to expire, and a range of ideas I strongly support in the Congressional Progressive Caucus Budget for All [which U.S. Rep John Olver voted for, Neal against], that's how we'll restore economic vibrancy and get on a path to fiscal and budget balance.
Q: How can Berkshire residents best be trained for jobs emerging in the new global economy?
Neal: Well, you're very well-positioned with the Mas sachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and you're very well-positioned with Berkshire Com munity College. I don't think I've had one stop in eight months across the Berkshires where I haven't had people talk to me about the role that Berkshire Com munity College plays and the role that MCLA plays.
Linking that to the whole notion in America of the skills gap is terribly important. Also, we need to make sure the kids that come out of high school have sufficient training. There are precision manufacturing jobs that go wanting, and I think addressing that skill set by keeping kids in school is a very important consideration, but [I understand] that a lot of parents can't afford $56,000 a year at George Washington University, so Berkshire Community College becomes a pretty good deal.
Let me give you a number which I think bares noting: The unemployment rate for the college-educated in America is 4 percent.
Nuciforo: The Berkshire Compact is one example of how the higher-education community in Berkshire County can gain a better understanding of which programs would best complement Berkshire employers. I worked with my colleagues in the statehouse to secure support for the Berk shire Compact, and served as a member of the Berkshire Compact for several years.
In keeping with the compact's objectives, we must 1) encourage young people to aspire to no less than 16 years of formal education; 2) make higher education achievable, both logistically and financially; and 3) build a system that encourages adoption of technology skills into our workforce. These long-term efforts will cost money.
As a member of Congress, I will fight to protect federal loan guarantees, Pell grants, and other federal programs that provide access to students from all walks of life. I will also promote federal investments in R&D, which provide direct federal support for research universities such as UMass in Amherst.
Lastly, we must maintain our commitment to vocational education. I would enhance federal funding for vocation education, under Title 20 and on a regional program-specific basis.
Shein: We need top-quality K-12 public education for all, affordable higher education, continued investment in vocational schools, and full funding of early education programs like Head Start. It's also never been more important to have an education system that empowers teachers to encourage the development of flexibility and independent, creative thought, rather than focus on high-stakes testing.
To fund education, I support substantial cuts to military spending and reforms to restore progressive taxation. We must live up to our rhetoric on education as the key to opportunity, and that means investing in our young people and making sure they aren't burdened with so much debt that their career and life options are narrowed. That's why the interest rate on federal student loans should be zero, not 3.4 or 6.8 percent.
I also strongly favor substantially expanding debt forgiveness programs along the lines of what's proposed in the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012.
Q: What is the role of the arts economy in the new 1st District?
Neal: It's part of an integration. Over the years, I was involved with the Congres sional Arts Caucus. In addition to which I've been a champion of the National Endowment for the Arts and resisted the demagoguery that took place during the argument we had over the Contract with America.
I've been a supporter of the NEA, the National Endow ment for the Humanities and a big believer in the role that the arts play in our lives, whether it's Jacob's Pillow, Tanglewood, the Mahaiwe Theater or the Colonial Theatre.
One of the great success stories of the New Deal was Roosevelt's decision to em brace the arts. And not only did it make a lot of sense then, it makes a lot of sense now.
Nuciforo: The arts are a key part of our economic mix in the Berkshires. My record in the Massachusetts State Senate [1997-2007] reflects my early and enthusiastic commitment to the arts. For example, I worked in the Legislature to secure $6 million for the nascent Colonial Theatre restoration in downtown Pittsfield, and I continue to serve on the board at the Berkshire Theatre Group.
I worked with [former] Mayor Ruberto, [developer] Richard Stanley and various state and local officials to facilitate the development of the Beacon Cinema, and to fund streetscape improvements through out down town Pittsfield. The success of MassMOCA in North Adams is a continuing reminder of the economic power of innovative thinking.
There are tangible economic benefits associated with the creative economy. According to Berkshire Creative, the arts cluster is one of the most important economic drivers in Berkshire County, providing more than 6,000 jobs. These positions are increasingly year-round and can pay up to $30 per hour.
Shein: Our creative economy is vital for both tourism dollars and to maintain the vibrant cultural offerings that make Western Massachusetts a wonderful place to live. It means both economic activity and culturally interesting communities where people want to visit or live permanently.
The city of Holyoke is exploring ways to expand its creative economy as Pittsfield has done during the last decade, and it can be an important part of economic revitalization across the region.
Q: How will you ensure that Berkshire County will continue to re ceive its fair share of federal largesse, as Rep. Olver did for the Colonial Theatre and other projects?
Neal: Well, the Colonial Theatre was also done with New Markets Tax Credits -- $19 million of the $23 million used came from that program -- and using the tax code, in that sense, is a great investment. But I've also been a real champion of Medicare, and let me point out something about Medicare that I think bares noting: Half the revenue of Berkshire Medical Center comes from Medicare. Anoth er 15 percent comes from Medicaid. It is not only first-class, quality care for people who turn 65, but it's a huge component of the economy across Massachusetts. And Medicare provides not only good health care but thousands of jobs, and it helps to train new doctors.
In a campaign, you can hear people say they're going to support Medicare. I've done it. I've spent a career doing it. There isn't anybody in Congress whose been more of a longtime champion of Social Security than I have.
Nuciforo: During my 10 years in the Massachusetts State Senate, I used strong, project-specific advocacy to bring millions of dollars to Berkshire County. I intend to take the same approach as a member of Congress.
I am proud of my track record: $6 million for the Colonial Theatre restoration; state support for roof and HVAC repairs at the Berk shire Museum; street scape improvements in numerous Berkshire towns; funding for directed patrols to address downtown crime hot spots; "critical access hospital" funding for our local health-care system; and much more.
It is not enough to simply vote to provide funding for national initiatives. I intend to advocate for Berkshire projects within specific federal agencies -- from the Department of Transportation to USDA.
Shein: Every member of Congress works hard to bring resources back to their district for worthwhile and essential projects. By championing the same progressive tax and budget priorities as Rep. Olver and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, I will help make available more resources for the many investments we need to make.
Rather than fight over scraps, our goal should be to ensure we have federal resources available for what's necessary in our communities and elsewhere. And that means doing more than just bringing home dollars. It means being an outspoken champion of political reform so that our tax policies, in particular, don't continue to favor the wealthy interests that fund our candidates and an army of corporate lobbyists.
Q: What can be done to help traditional businesses, many of them manufacturing, continue to thrive?
Neal: I think the Research and Development Tax Credit is a huge component of their success, making sure that they're well-positioned for federal opportunities in terms of investment, as is General Dynamics.
But also, returning to that argument about having well-trained students that can take those jobs: The skills gap in America is alarming today. There are an estimated 3.5 [million] to 5 million jobs that go wanting because we don't have the satisfactory skills for someone to take those jobs.
Parts of the manufacturing economy today in America are doing quite well in boosting exports, which grew last year by 5.7 percent. When you look at the German success story today, with an unemployment rate of 5 percent, their growth has overwhelmingly come from exports. And in the Berkshires, again, the plastics industry, General Dynamics, Sabic, they're all well-positioned to grow exports.
Nuciforo: Massachusetts has a proud legacy of manufacturing, and I will work hard to support the revival of that sector. I will do so by advancing the proposals [that I] outlined above.
In addition, I will file legislation to accomplish the following: to promote federal investment in green technology; to establish a new, permanent tax credit for American companies that invest in domestic R&D; to provide federal support for educational programs tailored to meet the employment needs of local manufacturers; and to transform America's "H" visa program, and thereby allow foreign customers better access to American software companies, manufacturers, and other suppliers.
Shein: In addition to the ideas [that I] presented above that are applicable to small business, I support President Obama's efforts to expand, and eventually double, the budget for the Hollings Manufacturing Extensions Partnership (MEP).
Through MEP centers in Massachusetts and every state, small- and medium-sized manufacturers have access to a variety of resources and technical expertise. Combined with federal and private-sector investment in research and development, particularly related to clean energy development and deployment, we can preserve manufacturing jobs and, where necessary, work to transition small- and medium-sized manufacturers to product lines that serve new and evolving needs and markets.
To reach Ned Oliver:
or (413) 496-6240.
On Twitter: @BE_NedOliver
About this series
In July, we asked readers to identify the most important issues facing the new 1st Congressional District and the country as a whole.
Through Facebook, our website, emails and phone calls, we heard your choices.
We've taken that feedback and turned it into a series of in-depth pieces exploring the values and beliefs of the three contenders in the Sept. 6 Democratic primary: U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, Andrea F. Nuciforo Jr. and Bill Shein.
We're calling this series the Citizens Agenda, and today we introduce Part 1 in the five-day series. It's on jobs and the economy -- the issue that consistently came up as the top priority among voters in Berkshire County.
Over the next few weeks, we'll also cover health care, political gridlock, taxes, national debt, Wall Street reform and campaign finance, so stay tuned.