While the scourge of COVID-19 has brought us low, it is possible for Massachusetts to emerge from crisis stronger than it was before — but it won’t happen on its own. To proactively build back better, we must acknowledge the inequities exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic, and boldly move to address them.
We are hopeful that state leaders can begin to chart that course through the Committee on Reimagining Massachusetts: Post-Pandemic Resiliency. The new panel — comprising chairs of state Senate committees on education, housing, racial equity, and labor and workforce development — will focus on closing social and economic gaps in a post-pandemic Massachusetts. Committee members kicked off their inaugural public meeting with a discussion that ranged from housing to broadband access.
The “reimagining committee” is encouraging not just in its stated goals, but in its leadership. Sen. Adam G. Hinds, D-Pittsfield, is in the chairman’s seat, giving some welcome representation to Berkshire County and Western Massachusetts, whose constituents often feel overlooked by the machinations on Beacon Hill.
Sen. Hinds frames the effort as a largely investigative one — a chance to study the challenges and lingering inequalities likely to face a post-pandemic Massachusetts, search for solutions and, as appropriate, recommend legislation. These aims are broad and, to be sure, important, though accomplishing them will ultimately demand more than just meetings and hearings, given the stubborn nature of some pressing inequalities. Pessimistic observers might note a penchant on Beacon Hill for task forces that do a lot of studying but sometimes not much else to move the ball forward on the issues in their crosshairs. Last year, for instance, lawmakers launched a Health Equity Task Force with the objective of recommending measures to address health inequities; the task force missed the deadline for its formal report despite two extensions, and the state still awaits those recommendations.
On the issues this new panel is targeting, progress will require action at the local level, in the state Legislature and, when it comes to more ambitious plans, a helpful push from the federal government. But the conversation must start somewhere, and hopefully this reimagining committee can prime the pump for potential solutions and legislative action that could help the commonwealth to flourish for all its residents — urbanites and rural folks, the middle class and working families, the well-off and the vulnerable.
To its credit, the committee went right to business in its first outing, zooming in on the obstacles disproportionately facing underserved communities, be they rural, minority, homeless or low-income.
Consider, for example, those left behind by the telecommunication revolution accelerated by the pandemic.
Evan Horowitz, executive director for the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University, summed it up in his conversation with the panel: “There’s no future that doesn’t involve increased reliance on digital tools in the workplace, in education, for telehealth.” And yet, according to the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, 21 percent of commonwealth residents are without decent home internet access.
We cannot afford, economically or ethically, to build a future that doesn’t include 1 in 5 of our fellow Bay Staters. Beyond the Berkshire representation he brings to the panel, Sen. Hinds is certainly familiar with the issue of lacking broadband access and the struggles many of his constituents here face — an added benefit to his presence in the group.
In addition to Mr. Horowitz, the committee’s first agenda included discussions with other civic and thought leaders — a Brockton housing nonprofit CEO, a Harvard social epidemiologist, a staff attorney for the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. It’s a great idea to cast a wide net for expertise and insight; we hope the senators tap the rich vein of voices in the western half of the state and invite them to contribute to these vital conversations as well.
The commonwealth is receiving a windfall of federal aid from the American Rescue Plan coronavirus relief package, and if President Joe Biden gets his way, a massive proposed infrastructure package could be sending more our way. Some of that might be specifically targeted, but other chunks will be up to the state in terms of how it gets spent. This panel will hopefully foster fruitful dialogue on how this money could best be put to use.
Ideally, this reimagining committee would be the place where we can begin to imagine a future that leaves no one behind. We wish them luck in this endeavor.