Kristine Hazzard | Live United: New coalition takes aim at poverty in the Berkshires

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Many view the Berkshires as a cultural playground, dotted with fine theater, museums, musical venues and farm to table restaurants, which punctuate a breathtaking landscape that offers a host of year-round outdoor activities.

Imagine, if you will, that neither you nor your family have ever had the opportunity to enjoy this playground. Imagine being a single parent working two jobs in the service industry that supports this playground. It is winter, and it is frigid; you must make the difficult decision to either buy your son a winter coat or buy food for him to eat when school is canceled, for there will be no free lunch. Your income, even though you have two jobs, won't allow you to do both.

Some of our friends and neighbors don't have to use their imagination to envision this scenario; they are living it. Thirteen percent of Berkshire County residents live at or below the poverty rate, which translates to 16,038 Berkshire County residents. There are more than 17,000 people age 16-64 who are unemployed in Berkshire County, and only 2,700 of them are collecting unemployment benefits with job placement support. An additional 26,000 people are underemployed.

That's one reason Berkshire United Way held its first Economic Prosperity Impact Council (EPIC) meeting last fall. EPIC is a countywide coalition with shared leadership from Greylock Federal Credit Union, Guardian Life Insurance Co. of America, Berkshire Community College and Berkshire United Way. Comprised of community volunteers who are committed to getting more people to work and creating a pathway to sustainable income, EPIC's vision is for Berkshire County to have a diverse, thriving, and sustainable economy where everyone has equitable access to economic prosperity.

"The diversity of the representatives from community sectors has enabled us to explore multiple levels of communication and collaboration. Through this group we are able to share ideas, get multiple perspectives on key issues and pool our talents and resources to address incremental steps that will lead to bigger solutions and ultimately goal achievement," says Cindy Shogry-Raimer, vice president-director of community development at Greylock Federal Credit Union.

The coalition recently agreed on four goals:

- Reducing the number and percentage of households with incomes under $75,000

- Increasing industry distribution, creating a greater diversity of local industries

- Increasing occupation distribution, therefore expanding employment opportunities

- Increasing average household net worth

EPIC is chaired by Christina Wynn, dean of enrollment management at Berkshire Community College. She is particularly excited about this work because, "Berkshire County residents deserve to earn a livable wage and have access to the amenities that attract people from across the globe to visit our region. The Berkshires are facing population loss, which is felt by every industry and organization in the county. By analyzing why people are unemployed or underemployed, our community can begin to develop strategies that allow us to confront those challenges together."

Berkshire United Way is partnering with the Berkshire County Regional Employment Board to hire a Berkshire recruiter who will serve as an employment matchmaker, and with Lever Inc. to offer college internships to local youth in support of these goals.

We are also expanding the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program (VITA) this year. VITA offers free tax prep to people with household incomes of less than $54,000 a year, with no hidden fees.

Through this free service, volunteers have helped qualified individuals obtain refunds as high as $6,044. In 2017, the VITA program in Berkshire County resulted in over $1.7 million of additional dollars circulating in our community!

Qualified individuals should call 413-442-6948 or visit berkshireunitedway.org to make an appointment or be referred to a location and provider of their choice.

Both job and income growth lead to a stronger local economy by increasing spending and the production of goods and services, which stimulates economic activity. This benefits our community by reducing social costs, decreasing the rate of family disruption, and strengthening the education, security and well-being of all our friends and neighbors here in the Berkshires. This is EPIC!

Kristine Hazzard is president and CEO of Berkshire United Way, berkshireunitedway.org. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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