WILLIAMSTOWN —When State Rep. Paul Mark was 12-years-old, his father was laid off on Christmas Eve. The loss of his job sent his family into five years of financial instability, forcing them to move several times and rely on public assistance.
At a Poverty Forum hosted at Williams College on Friday, Mark told attendees that is was that difficult period in his life, and other experiences since, that inspires his work in government.
"What got me out of poverty, what kept me out of poverty, was higher education," he told the crowd, many of whom worked for social service organizations.
Mark, along with the rest of the Berkshire legislative delegation and local elected officials, spoke about how state and federal policy can impact those living in poverty, and how local issues like low wages and a lack of education are hindering Berkshire County residents. The event was organized by Berkshire Community Action, Massachusetts Association for Community.
When talking about college, Mark shared that the first time he attempted to get a bachelors degree, he had to drop out after a year because he couldn't afford the cost of living and didn't want to be a burden on his family.
He later landed himself at a job at a phone company that offered tuition assistance. Today he has a bachelor's degree, masters degree, law degree and a doctorate.
"Because they paid for it," he said.
His wife however, wasn't as fortunate, he said, and her $750 a month student loan payment remains a burden for them, stalling the growth of their family, he said.
Massachusetts has the 12th highest student loan debt in the country and 66 percent of graduates have student loans, he said.
In order for individuals to ensure individuals don't get themselves trapped in poverty, it's imperative that students be educated about loan financing and that there tuition assistance options available for them, he said.
State Rep. Tricia Farley Bouvier, too, spoke of the importance of a education, and said that it should start long before college.
"Some of our lowest paid professionals are early childhood educators," she said. "A lot of that comes from gender discrimination."
Time has come for the government to start funding universal Pre-K and paying teachers a living wage, Farley Bouvier said.
State Rep. John Barrett, who's district encompassed north county, called Berkshire County's job training "pitiful" and the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority "out of sync."
To improve the quality of life of residents, these problems must be fixed, he said.
Statewide, the average household income is around $96,000 a year. In North Adams and Pittsfield, it's in the mid-$40,000s, according to Nancy Wegman, of the Massachusetts Policy and Budget Center.
Wegman explained that the country faced an economic boom after World War II with a steady increase in both economic growth and employee wages through the mid-1970s. Today, however, the economy continues to grow, but middle and lower-earning employees are not seeing the growth in their salaries, she said.
That stagnant wages have had ripple effects throughout the country, including rural areas like Berkshire County.
Despite some development in the county's cities, low wages restrict some residents from being able to reap the benefits, Mayors Linda Tyer, of Pittsfield, and Thomas Bernard, of North Adams said. For some, it can even push them into committing crimes of desperation and ending up in the court system, according to District Attorney Andrea Harrington.
The most heartbreaking part of poverty is that "it steals people's joy," Tyer said.
While many may assume that poverty is restricted to those who don't work, that's not the case in Berkshire County. Pittsfield has an unemployment rate of 3.6 percent.
"People are working, but they're still poor," she said.
And some people, even if they are able to find and want to work a full-time job, staying on public assistance may be more financially viable option for their family, said Alisa Costa, executive director of Pittsfield's Working Cities initiative.
Costa explained "the cliff effect," a term to describe how an increased income could prompt the sudden loss of assistance programs such as SNAP, childcare or public housing and end up pushing someone further into poverty.
For example, if a single mother with two children suddenly found a job at $18 an hour, the increased cost of housing and other costs would end up being a burden to the family, she explained. The woman would need to make around $27 an hour to stay above water, she explained.
The cliff effect is a long-standing systemic issue that needs to be addressed, she said.
All speakers urged the audience to commit to working for economic development and to fill out the 2020 census to ensure local organizations receive the funding they need.
"We have to be very deliberate in dismantling the growing income inequality in this state," State Sen. Adam Hinds said.
Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at email@example.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.