Income inequality grows in the Berkshires

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PITTSFIELD —
A lack of good paying jobs. An increase in economic inequality. Stagnant wages. Growth that registers below the national average. Lack of affordable housing options.

Spending on tourism is booming while the second home market is growing. But poverty is on the rise, and many residents are considering leaving the area because it's too expensive to live in.

Those are some of the main findings contained in a "A Closer Look" a report by the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation that examines the economics and demographics of the nonprofit's coverage area which includes parts of four counties in three states, and all of Berkshire County.

The most significant findings contained in the report are in the jobs and economic data, said Berkshire Taconic President Peter Taylor. Residents of these areas in Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut are all wrestling with similar issues, the data indicates.

- More than a third of the area's residents cite the lack of available jobs as reasons why they would consider moving out of the area.

- 60 percent reported challenges accessing job opportunities for themselves or a family member.

- More than 50 percent of residents with household incomes from $50,000 to $124,000 are considering leaving the area within the next three years.

- 44 percent of residents under the age of 46 have also considered leaving the region within that same three-year time span.

The foundation's coverage area includes 68 total municipalities located in Berkshire County, Columbia and northeast Dutchess counties in New York, and northwest Litchfield County in Connecticut, along with the town of Stamford, Vt.

The report was formulated with the help of a consultant, Mt. Auburn Associates, which held community conversations in several municipalities, including North Adams, and scheduled 12 focus groups with the region's residents to discuss the issues that mattered the most to them. Data was also gathered through online surveys. Over 2,300 people participated in the process of formulating the report, which took place from September to December.

"We undertook this process beginning last January so the foundation could gain a deeper understanding of the issues trends and needs facing our communities," said Berkshire Taconic President Peter Taylor. "It's important to our work and our nonprofit partners, and the donor community having this approach because it's how they approach their philanthropy."

According to the report, economic growth in the four county region has been 3.3 percent since 2010, though it is 7 percent in Columbia County, which includes the city of Hudson, N.Y. But those figures are well below the the U.S. average of 9 percent.

About a third of the region's towns and cities had unemployment rates higher than the national average of 8.3 percent between 2011 and 2015, the report found. The labor force participation, the metric that measures the active portion of an economy's workforce, ranged between 50 and 75 percent throughout the region, but nearly half of the 68 municipalities were below the national average of 64 percent.

The report shows a 15 percent decline in the amount of available farmland between 1997 and 2012.

Growth

The region saw job growth in health care and social assistance, which make up 15 percent of jobs, and the government, retail trade, accommodation and food service sectors. There was also a high level of self employment.

The report also found an increase in tourism spending — a total of $1.3 billion in the four county region — a thriving creative industry highlighted by 200 nonprofit organizations.

During that same time span, the number of jobs in food-related industries, production, processing, distribution, restaurants and retail, increased to 17,500, or 12.3 percent of all of the region's jobs as of 2015. Employment in that sector has grown by almost 8 percent since 2010, which is almost twice the overall region's job growth

"Jobs and economic development are the most pressing issue for residents across age income levels and across education levels," Taylor said. "As a region we need to be thinking about how we can look at assets of our region compared to other regions and think of ways to grow the economy to provide good jobs for the people of this region."

Human landscape

The report also highlighted several demographic changes. The number of residents over age 65 in the entire region was 19 percent between 2010 and 2014, higher than the state averages in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York, and the national average of 13.7 percent. Of the region's 68 municipalities, 59 saw an increase in the percentage of senior citizens. Only five experienced an increase in children. The number of families without children in the region is 21 percent higher than the national average of 43 percent.

According to the American Community Survey, which is performed by the U.S. Census Bureau, the region lost 2.5 people for every one resident it gained between 2010 and 2014. The highest amount of population loss in the region was in Berkshire County at 3.6 percent.

Income inequality

The report found several signs of deepening inequality throughout the region.

Although 54 of the 68 municipalities had median household incomes that exceeded the national average of $53,600, incomes throughout the area have not kept pace with inflation, meaning that many workers are earning less now than they did in 2000.

At 11 percent, the entire region's poverty rate is below the national average of 15 percent, but poverty has increased in almost three-quarters of the region since 2000, and by 10 percent or more in most towns and cities. In some areas, including the cities of Pittsfield and North Adams, as many as one in five residents are living in poverty. The Berkshire County poverty rate is 12 percent, higher than any other areas in the region. One Berkshire County estimate found that nearly 12 percent of the population faced food insecurity.

At the same time, the number of properties being used for second or vacation homes in the region increased by 28 percent from 2000 to 2014. In over a quarter of the region, 30 percent of the housing was occupied part-time (the regional average is 14 percent). On the flip side, 45 percent of the renters in the region paid more than 30 percent of their income on rent between 2010 and 2014, while 22 percent spent more than half.

Resident perspective surveys found that 30 percent of the region's residents have faced challenges accessing affordable housing. The third highest reason people are considering leaving the area is because they believe the region is too expensive to live in.

Contact Business Editor Tony Dobrowolski at 413 496-6224.




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