Clarence Fanto: Reality of poverty hits close to home
One out of five children in Berkshire County lives in poverty.
That’s not a misprint. To be precise, it’s 21 percent, the third highest countywide poverty rate in the state for youngsters under 18. That grim news, and much more, is in the just-issued annual national report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, working with the University of Wisconsin’s Population Health Institute. It’s the fifth year the foundation and institute have released statistics on economic and health indicators covering just about every county in the U.S.
Only two other Massachusetts counties have higher childhood poverty rates: Suffolk (Boston, Chelsea, Revere, Winthrop) with 26 percent and Hampden (including Springfield, Chicopee, Holyoke and 20 more) with 31 percent. The statewide rate for youngsters is 15 percent. All figures announced this week are based on surveys compiled in 2012.
Another startling finding: In 2007, the child poverty rate in the Berkshires was 15 percent. Despite the supposed economic recovery since the Great Recession, we’re backsliding on this and other key measures of the county’s economic and physical health.
The report, well-worth checking out at the user-friendly website countyhealthrankings.org, includes many other measures of economic and social distress in our county, state and nation.
n The teen birth rate in Berkshire County, at 24 percent, is well above the statewide figure of 19 percent.
n Excessive drinking affects 21 percent of our county’s adults, compared to 10 percent in the state; the rate of auto-accident fatalities caused by impaired drivers is 28 percent in the Berkshires, double the 14 percent figure for Massachusetts.
n The national poverty rate for children was 23 percent in 2012, up sharply from 18 percent in 2007.
n 30 percent of children in our state live in single-parent homes; in Berkshire County, it’s 35 percent.
nNearly 25 percent of U.S. families have inadequate or unaffordable living quarters. In Berkshire County, 17 percent of households report at least one severe housing problem, slightly better than the statewide rate of 19 percent.
n The national obesity rate for adults has soared from 18 percent in 1995 to 28 percent in 2012. In the Berkshires, it’s 22 percent, again a minor improvement from the state’s 24 percent rate.
Commenting on the national report’s findings, Abbey Cofsky, senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, told USA Today: "It sounds like it could be the 1800s or a Third World country."
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation encourages countywide cooperation for programs to battle childhood poverty and other problems. But Julie Wilson, a faculty specialist in poverty and family policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, has pointed out that historically, Massachusetts has resisted countywide solutions for community problems.
"Increasingly as we are watching poverty grow in the suburbs, a lot of the services for families are still in cities," Wilson told the Boston Globe. "In the western part of the state, you have a transportation problem. Think of how far you have to drive to go to a clinic or doctor, if you can even afford it, and about the cost of insurance and gas."
Wilson’s comments came before the shocking revelation on Tuesday that North Adams Regional Hospital and related medical facilities are slated for shutdown today.
Remarkably, economists continue to quibble over whether it can be proven that the tidal wave of income inequality sweeping our nation has a negative impact.
According to Prof. Christopher Jencks, a social policy specialist at Harvard, it’s hard to find specific evidence. But, in his recent book, "The Price of Inequality," the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote that "we are paying a high price for the inequality that is increasingly scarring our economy," adding that the income gap hampers growth and fosters economic instability.
Princeton economist Alan Krueger, former chief economic adviser to President Obama, popularized the "Great Gatsby Curve." As described in The New York Times, it argues that the wider the economic gap, the more likely children of poor parents would remain enmeshed in poverty as adults.
Some social scientists contend that severe inequality frays social bonds and impairs physical and mental health, while contributing to obesity and teen pregnancy, reduced life expectancy and a higher crime rate.
Commenting on the to and fro economic debate, New York Times columnist Eduardo Porter makes the case for closing the income gap, also known as redistribution of wealth, by pointing out that an extra $10,000 of annual income has a much greater impact on a middle-class family than losing the same amount would have on a billionaire.
"While the effect of widening inequality may be exaggerated by some research," Porter wrote this week, "there is decent evidence that it leads to other inequities -- in health and education, for instance. Given that much inequality is inherited, this strikes many of us as fundamentally unfair."
It’s hard to dispute statistics showing stagnant salaries for the lower and middle classes for the past 40 years, when adjusted for inflation, while the top 1 percent has thrived while purchasing political power through campaign financing, ensuring that the income gap will continue to widen with little or no hope of a change.
Even Jencks, the skeptical Harvard professor, told The Times: "Something that looks bad is coming at you. Saying that we shouldn’t do anything about it until we know for sure would be a bad response."
From this vantage point, that seems like tip-toeing around the truth. Denial of income inequality’s devastating effects is a head-in-the-sand reaction worthy of an ostrich. We can duck and run from reality, but we can’t hide.
Clarence Fanto can be contacted at email@example.com
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