Adam G. Hinds: Inequality problem the state ignores

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BOSTON — Let's say you, your spouse, and your two kids live in Mattapan. The closest elementary school for your son, in first grade, is in Waltham. And the closest preschool for your daughter is in Hyde Park. Your employer lets you work remotely, but your neighborhood doesn't have broadband internet access, so you have to drive to a co-working space in the Back Bay, because the MBTA has terminated service to your area. For medical care, the closest hospital is in Wellesley. Isn't life complicated enough without obstacles like these?

That's essentially the situation facing Josh and Kim Wachtel in Cummington, a town of 881 people between Pittsfield and Northampton. The elementary school there closed five years ago because of low enrollment, so Josh drives his son to first grade two towns away. Cummington has no high-speed internet, and the nearest hospital is a 30-minute drive. In gatherings I host in small towns across Western Massachusetts, an area I represent in the state Senate, I hear similar stories all the time.

We all know about income inequality in Boston, easily seen from the steps of the State House: One in five people in the city lives in poverty. Meanwhile, in Suffolk County in 2015, the top one percent on average made 54 times what everyone else made, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

What most people don't see, however, is the severe income disparity in rural areas such as Western and Central Massachusetts and Cape Cod. The median household income in Berkshire and Franklin counties is about 40 percent lower than that in Middlesex and Norfolk counties, and the gap has grown in the last decade. Berkshire, Hampshire, and Hampden counties have three of the four highest poverty rates in the state.

A DANGEROUS DIVIDE

The Wachtels' experience in Hampshire County epitomizes some of the challenges small rural communities confront. As industries left the region, big barriers to development remained. Broadband, essential to the knowledge economy, is only coming to many rural towns over the next year and a half. Public transportation is nonexistent in most of these towns, meaning you can only get to regional economic centers by car. School districts struggle to keep doors open and maintain quality curricula due to dwindling enrollment and an inability to capture economies of scale. People leave, making it harder for those who stay to pay for basic services.

The result is a vicious cycle — and a dangerous divide. Fears of the nation's rural-urban gap resonate here, as rural areas watch big cities boom. People living in rural counties always made less money, but the cost of living was manageable. What I hear from families now tells a different story. Many of them believe the recession never ended, and for them it hasn't.

The state needs to fix this now. Why hasn't it? Perception, partly. These regions evoke images of beautiful landscapes, hearty farmers, and wealthy owners of second homes. If you think it's all Tanglewood, Norman Rockwell, and the Clark Art Institute, you're wrong. Another problem is numbers: Fewer people means fewer advocates and less state aid.

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We cannot let numbers alone drive policy. Programs in rural areas may occasionally cost more per person. But to give citizens everywhere in the state an equal opportunity, strategic investments are needed. Not doing so costs the state more in the long run — it loses revenue when economic activity slows in multiple regions. Moreover, when rural governments lose their local tax bases, they cut spending. Budget cuts hurt infrastructure and public schools, and people move to cities, putting more pressure on transportation and housing.

The solution: Massachusetts needs its own version of a farm bill. A statewide rural renewal plan, similar to the federal farm bill passed at the end of 2018, would be a comprehensive effort bolstering our food producers and fishermen, identifying key infrastructure investments — such as rural broadband and transportation — and investing in strategic regional economic development in small cities and towns. Bills addressing many of these elements are making their way through the Legislature. But rallying support behind the big themes of a rural renewal plan would raise the chances that each one of these initiatives passes.

That includes a bill filed by several rural legislators, myself included, to create an office for rural policy in the governor's office. Massachusetts established a Rural Policy Advisory Commission in 2015, but it lacks staff and the strength that would come from being in the executive branch. No other entity serves this function for rural areas, so a full-time executive director for this new office could ensure that statewide policies don't adversely affect such places or leave them out altogether, as was the case with broadband Internet.

SPUR PRIVATE INVESTMENT

A rural renewal plan could also spur private investment in small towns and small businesses, something the state's existing incentives to stimulate economic growth don't do. I filed a bill in the Senate, and state Rep. Natalie Blais filed a version in the House, providing tax incentives for private contributions to rural growth funds meant for small businesses in towns or cities with fewer than 500 people per square mile (about half of our municipalities).

Despite the challenges, there are incredible bright spots. Compared with some rural areas in other states contending with post-industrial economic shifts, rural areas in Massachusetts boast universities, vibrant arts and cultural scenes, and amenities such as outdoor attractions. In Berkshire County, these translated into $1 billion worth of investment the past three years alone in tourism, housing, and universities. But to cultivate true growth — and ensure a strong economy reaches every corner of the state — we need a more comprehensive approach.

Adopting such a plan would mean we'd have a commonwealth that literally lived up to the name.

Adam G. Hinds, a Pittsfield Democrat, is a state senator representing 52 communities in Western Massachusetts. This column is reprinted from The Boston Globe.


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