Our Opinion: Wealthy in county are part of solution to economic woes

The problems of low wages, disappearing jobs and a growing wealth gap in Berkshire County aren't new and they defy easy resolution. The causes are many, and are in large part linked to national trends. It's a distraction from finding those solutions to scapegoat tourists and second-home owners who are not the issue.

At a town hall Friday at Berkshire Community College, Representative Richard Neal, a 1st District Democrat from Springfield, held up a copy of a front page article from Friday's Boston Globe about the widening of the income divide in Berkshire County (Eagle. September 16.) The Globe article summed up the issues facing the Berkshires — without breaking new ground — but from its opening paragraph, in which the sounds of the Boston Symphony waft over the lawn at Tanglewood on a "Berkshire Night" free to residents that many can't attend because they are cleaning vacation homes, can't afford a baby-sitter, or can't get a bus, the premise is established of the Berkshires as a playground for aristocrats served by bitter, downtrodden peasants.

It makes for a colorful story hook, but a simplistic one. It would be just as easy to write about the swells heading into a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert at Symphony Hall in Boston while ignoring the homeless person sitting in a nearby doorway. Wealth gaps aren't exclusive to the Berkshires in Massachusetts.

Housing prices have indeed increased considerably in recent years in South Berkshire. Second home-owners there, and elsewhere in the Berkshires, however, pay taxes, patronize local businesses, frequent restaurants, and support cultural attractions like Tanglewood that provide jobs and boost restaurants and hotels. County residents can disdain them if they choose, as did several in the Globe story, but the root of the economic problem is elsewhere

The problem, in fact, has many sources. National online retail trends are largely to blame for the painful demise of Country Curtains in Stockbridge, a long-established employer. The county has lost a manufacturing base that employed thousands. Small manufacturers remain, and BCC and MCLA are focused on helping train county residents to fill the skilled positions they offer. As Representative Neal observed Friday, "18,000 precision manufacturing jobs go unanswered" in New England. Some of them, according to Berkshire employers, are right here.

High electricity costs are another factor cited by the congressman, which highlights the important efforts of elected officials to fight an indefensible rate increase proposed by Eversource that would further burden Berkshire businesses. The Inadequate bus service on nights and weekends make it difficult for workers without cars to get to their jobs. This is a problem the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority can't address without the kind of funding governments in Western Europe, for example, traditionally provide for public transportation. The Globe story asserted that inadequate high-speed internet was preventing residents from starting up businesses, but a lengthy series of Eagle stories in recent months shows how this problem is being successfully addressed in small towns.

The economic difficulties of the Berkshires are being taken on by government, businesses, educators and others, but they are deep-rooted and most of all complex. It is simplistic to point figures at wealthier Berkshire residents who aren't the problem and are part of the solution.


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