State Senator Adam G. Hinds (copy)

State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, chairs the Senate’s Special Committee on Reimagining Massachusetts: Post-Pandemic Resiliency. In its first report, released Tuesday, the committee tackles digital access, care work, economic opportunity, housing trends and transportation needs.

Tasked with “reimagining” Massachusetts as the state recovers from the pandemic, a committee led by state Sen. Adam Hinds has released its first report.

As the Legislature considers how to spend around $4.8 billion in federal funds, the publication from the Senate’s Special Committee on Reimagining Massachusetts: Post-Pandemic Resiliency provides analysis and policy options for five topics: digital access, care work, economic opportunity, housing trends and transportation needs.

Hinds, a Pittsfield Democrat, sees “a rare opportunity” to address pandemic-driven changes as well as longstanding inequalities.

“Between the pandemic and the ongoing racial reckoning, they combined with the influx of billions of dollars in federal funds to create a rare moment in policy-making, which is when you have an overlap of the will and the resources to do something meaningful,” Hinds said.

Going forward, the committee will tackle additional topics such as health costs, climate change, environmental justice, democratic systems and K-12 and higher education, the report said.

In a phone call, Hinds discussed the report and the committee’s approach to its work.

Q: Given the broad charter of the committee, how did you pick the areas of focus?

A: I think the challenge is essentially the state’s recovery depends on our ability to tackle simultaneously real-time changes in the economy while catching up to decades of rising housing costs and wage stagnation and high child care costs and transportation challenges. All of that led us to really focus on a handful of big issues, and pretty quickly the five that we landed on rose to the top.

Q: For the report’s first topic, the digital divide, there’s the availability issue, but there’s also the affordability issue. How do the strategies outlined in the report address the full scope of challenges?

A: The biggest revelation here is that bridging the digital divide is not necessarily an infrastructure issue, but it’s a poverty issue. That really was an eye opener to someone who’s been working on rural broadband for so long... If you make over $75,000 [as a household], almost everybody has access to internet connection, whereas around 40 percent lack a fixed broadband if you’re making under $35,000. That was a big piece, but you also need to make sure that there’s hardware available, whether a laptop or a tabloid, and the knowledge of use and how to use them.

There are some low-cost options from providers, and there are federal supports right now because of COVID for subscription subsidies, but we heard that they are often narrow in scope and poorly advertised with many restrictions. So we proposed making it automatic for people who are eligible for MassHealth or other forms of assistance that come from the state. One of the ways we’ve tried to tackle this as well is investing in municipal-owned networks and ensuring that people can repair used devices.

Q: The report seems to take the approach of “intergenerational” care introduced by Senate President Spilka. Why is this approach necessary?

A: Both in getting the mandate from the Senate president and in our hearings, we heard that it’s not just child care, but it really is maybe the quiet challenges that people face at home that were just magnified. They were trying to work at home while caring for loved ones with special needs or aging parents. It just really kept pointing towards: OK, how do we ensure there is intergenerational care in the neighborhood throughout the commonwealth? Data shows labor force participation among low-income mothers is expected to surge significantly when there is available child care.

We’ve realized the care economy has a concentration of underpaid workers. It’s a mixture of spending more money on child care and making sure that the child care workers have salaries that are attractive and can retain workers.

Q: In the section on the economy, how did the committee settle on the income support programs that it mentions?

A: What we have seen during the past year and a half is government has a very clear role in pulling people out of poverty. What we were trying to tackle is: It can be very expensive, so what are the targeted supports to low-income families, the tools that the state has available? We mentioned a couple, like a more generous earned income tax credit and continuing to expand one that we had this budget, a tax credit for people providing care for loved ones.

We want to make sure we can take advantage of these shifts in this economy, and yet when you take the statewide perspective, you realize that if you’re in a job that pays over $100,000, you’re twice as likely to have a remote-friendly job compared to someone earning less than $50,000. These have real consequences in the middle of a public health crisis.

Q: On housing, the report mentions one policy option is a $400-$500 million investment in new housing construction. Beyond that, what else is necessary for the state to address housing needs as prices continue to rise?

A: Looking at changes in home prices confirmed that we were seeing more demand for homes outside of downtown areas. Home prices rose 10 percent statewide and even faster in certain areas. We saw it in the Berkshires — it was an increase of 20 percent. We’ve also seen the demand for larger houses was on the rise — our assumption was that people were looking for more space to work from home. The implication is that we’ll see more and more increases to the housing cost and pressure on residents.

With an eye on equity and the implications for persistent wealth gaps is really being clear on the need to continue to expand first-time homebuyers’ programs so that we can overcome these wealth gaps and intergenerational wealth transfers, which have been particularly clear as a part of our legacy of redlining and other forms of discrimination... The other one of course was the crisis of evictions. We felt that some automatic kind of use of rental assistance and [other initiatives] could help for predictability for landlords and for people experiencing housing challenges. It’s a big issue, but again I think an opportunity here given the federal funds to really have a big lasting impact.

Q: The transportation section of the report takes a look at ways to change the cost of driving relative to public transportation — for Greater Boston, that means ideas such as congestion pricing and more fare-free bus options. In Western Massachusetts, there’s a lot of excitement around rail. How can rail factor into this strategy?

A: When you’re talking about the incentives for driving, you need to have alternatives for people. So out in Western Massachusetts, I think it really does speak to the importance of west-east rail. We’re watching very closely what the federal government can do in relation to infrastructure, and it would just be a gamechanger for really allowing folks to take advantage of cheaper cost of living and the quality of life that we experience in Western Massachusetts and work in nearby economic centers if we make that generational investment.

Danny Jin, a Report for America corps member, is The Eagle’s Statehouse news reporter. He can be reached at djin@berkshireeagle.com, @djinreports on Twitter and 413-496-6221.

Statehouse reporter

Danny Jin is the Eagle's Statehouse reporter. A graduate of Williams College, he previously interned at The Eagle and The Christian Science Monitor.