PITTSFIELD >> For the first time in our city's history, Pittsfield voters will head to the polls this fall to elect a mayor who will serve for four years. Doubling the mayor's term gives our next chief executive the opportunity to take a longer view in charting the city's course. My hope is that in doing so the candidates focus on an issue often left to candidates running in national, federal and statewide campaigns — poverty.
According to the federal Census, the poverty rate in Massachusetts (11.9 percent) is lower than the national rate (15.8 percent), but still up significantly since before the Great Recession (9.9 percent). In the Berkshires, the poverty rate approaches the national rate (14 percent), but there is great variation throughout the region.
The poverty rate fluctuates as you compare communities located in north, central or southern Berkshire County. However, the poverty rates also vary within individual communities, especially in Pittsfield.
As the Census divides Pittsfield into 11 tracts, it is striking to see poverty rates across these neighborhoods ranging from 4 percent to 40.1 percent. While three neighborhoods enjoy poverty rates well below the national and state averages, and four others trend towards the average, most concerning are the four remaining neighborhoods with poverty rates well above the state and national averages. Ranging from 23.6 percent to 40.1 percent, these poorest sections of Pittsfield border one another, making up the Westside, Morningside, Downtown and the north end of the city.
If the current mayoral race follows the form of previous elections, there will be much debate about economic development, public safety and education, but there will be little, if any, discussion about poverty. If this happens Pittsfield will have missed an opportunity to move the dial on those previously mentioned issues and so much more. Poverty isn't the sole cause of our economic problems, crime or educational challenges. However it certainly plays a massive role in each and hinders our ability to address them in a significant way.
In 2014, three of the 10 public elementary and middle schools serving the city's students were classified by the state as "Level 3" in 2014, meaning they require technical assistance. All three schools are located in high-poverty neighborhoods. The residents of these neighborhoods also deal with a greater threat of crime, as has been evidenced by recent violence, and see less positive economic activity in their immediate community.
Poverty isn't an issue of Pittsfield's making, nor can it be solved by municipal action alone. Two new state laws — increasing the minimum wage and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for low-income families — will make an impact as they are implemented, but much more must be done. Similarly, the federal government must be a partner in our efforts to eradicate poverty.
But if we really want to reduce poverty, and associated negative social impacts, it's key that our next mayor understands they can and should supplement federal and state initiatives with anti-poverty measures of their own.
A newly elected mayor, having discussed these issues throughout the campaign, can immediately engage local business and community leaders from private and non-profit sectors to tackle poverty. Steps can be taken to merge the Westside and Morningside Initiatives together into a new community development corporation (CDC), separate from City Hall, focused on community economic development and advocacy. Both initiatives have done great work, but they require independence from city government to push for policies and programs that will impact their neighborhoods. Additionally, the state Community Investment Tax Credit could supply additional resources to their efforts, but a CDC is required for eligibility.
A mayor focused on poverty can engage directly with our city's major employer, Berkshire Health Systems, which physically sits in the center of these neighborhoods, to address both the root causes of poverty and its outcomes. BHS's work with the Canyon Ranch Institute and the general trend towards "population health" focused care presents an opportunity to engage deeply with neighborhoods with a prevalence of negative health indicators, costing families precious resources.
In the long-term, these neighborhoods, through a new CDC or with Berkshire Community College and the Pittsfield Public Schools, can more actively and directly develop pipelines for children to be trained for jobs at the health system, or providing services to the system.
A mayor focused on poverty can help these neighborhoods take advantage of both their human capital, and their beautiful natural resources, as well. Making the Westside Riverway Project a reality should be a priority for the community. A rehabbed riverway would connect Pitt Park with other parks along the West Branch of the Housatonic. The riverway would serve as a sight for local food vendors, while city officials engaged with local non-profits and business would ramp up after school programming in the parks.
Finally, a mayor focused on poverty can help reconnect the city economically and socially. The high poverty neighborhoods the census data highlights are also the most racially and ethnically diverse in Pittsfield. Too often, their residents have felt left out of efforts to improve the city and help it transition into the future. A reinvigorated regional chapter of the NAACP and others are working to rectify this, and City Hall should welcome their efforts.
Regardless of who wins City Hall this fall, poverty will still be a challenge in Pittsfield in 2016, as will economic development, public safety and public education. The question voters must answer this fall is who they want to steer our City in the right direction.
My answer is we need a leader to stare the problem of poverty directly in the face and start tackling it on day one. Eradicating poverty will take more than one initiative. Yet, the only way for Pittsfield to truly be great is to focus on implementing viable solutions. This election gives our city a great opportunity. I hope the candidates and the public take it.
State Senator Benjamin B. Downing, a lifelong Pittsfield resident, represents the 52 Western Massachusetts communities in the Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden District. He serves as the Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities & Energy. This is his fifth term in the Massachusetts Senate.