Kristine Hazzard | Live United: Programs help connect families with needed resources

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Recently, there has been a lot of discussion about the socioeconomic differences across our country.

At a glance, it may appear that Berkshire County residents are fairly well off, with grand Berkshire cottages dotting the landscape, cultural offerings galore, and a plethora of fine dining establishments that extend from the Vermont border down to the Connecticut line.

The facts tell an alarmingly different story.

Based on 2014 data collected by Berkshire Benchmarks, a data clearinghouse managed by Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, and just one of the many programs funded by Berkshire United Way, there are 7,846 families living at 200 percent of the poverty level in Berkshire County; that is 24 percent of our county's population. For comparison, the percentage of low-income families in Massachusetts is 19.7.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the low-income threshold for a family of four with two children under the age of 18 is $48,500. If you're a single parent with two children, the upper threshold is $38,192. Take a moment and ask yourself if you could support your family on those wages; those are gross wages, by the way.

Wherever you live in Berkshire County, it is quite likely that one of your neighbors is doing just that. Never mind that these families cannot afford to attend one of the aforementioned cultural events or opportunities to eat out. These members of our community are making the gut-wrenching decision — on a weekly basis — to feed their family or pay their utility bills.

With the help and support of our partners throughout the community, Berkshire United Way is working to change that. Our goal is to reduce the number of low-income families in Berkshire County to less than 20 percent by 2020.

The Workplace Resource Coordinator Program is designed to address job retention and absenteeism. Through this program, a Workplace Resource Coordinator (WRC) meets people at various work sites to connect employees to vital community resources and services that address non-work-related issues impacting their attendance and productivity such as transportation, challenges with paying bills or identifying quality child care. This innovative effort is designed to create a stable workforce and ultimately an improved economic climate for our community.

Wes Gadson, of Pittsfield, was hired as the coordinator in March. A recent client spoke about her experience with the program.

"Wes accessed Goodwill vouchers for clothes and shoes needed for work, which I wouldn't have otherwise been able to afford. Appearance is a priority in my job, and looking your best at work shouldn't have to be stressful," she said. "Working with Wes made it all hassle free! She also provided valuable information about food banks and senior benefits offered in this community."

The WRC program is currently available at five local companies: Berkshire Community College; the Brien Center; Greylock Federal Credit Union; Hill Engineers, Architects, Planners; and Main Street Hospitality.

Berkshire United Way is also investing in the Community Connector program, a partnership among 20 community-based service providers who are committed to reducing the financial struggles of low-income individuals and families.

The partnership has adopted a "no wrong door" approach in which each agency uses a common intake that assesses the needs of the individual or family so that they can make immediate referrals to additional services provided by members of the partnership. The partnership's objectives are to assist low-income residents raise their credit scores, maintain employment, and earn certificates and education degrees that lead to better paying jobs, to name a few. The program also aims to have a "warm handoff" when connecting individuals with other organizations and resources.

In addition, Berkshire United Way is increasing its financial support for the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program so that the 1,400 employees served by the WRC program can access volunteers who will help maximize their tax returns by ensuring those who qualify receive the earned income tax credit.

Residents of Berkshire County with an annual household income of $54,000 or less qualify for VITA and are also encouraged to file back taxes using this resource. For additional information on VITA and other resources please visit the financial stability section of our website at berkshireunitedway.org.

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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