Boston-based group stops in Springfield on statewide tour to kick around ideas on ways to end poverty

As Reported by Diane Lederman, MassLive/Springfield Republican:

Thinking about health care beyond the doctor’s office, offering smaller buses to reach rural residents and stepping out of silos to work collaboratively across the Pioneer Valley were some of the suggestions offered to address poverty and inequality raised in a recent statewide report.

About 100 people from human service agencies, education, health care and political realms gathered to hear Nancy Wagman, Kids Count Director of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, present findings from her report “Obstacles on the Road to Opportunity: Finding a Way Forward Together.”

The report from the Boston-based MassBudget, which looked at poverty, need and opportunity, was issued in May.

Since then, the Massachusetts Association for Community Action has held forums to present the data and talk about solutions in Boston, Quincy, Lawrence and Worcester, said Lisa Clay, communications and member services manager for the association.

The organization will hold one more forum in the Berkshires in January and issue a follow-up report.

Clay said there have been improvements over the years that helped address issues that affect the poor, such as the raise in the minimum wage. After the report’s release, the effort will focus on further advancements.

“Poverty is a story about low wage work,” she said.

A laborer earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 has an annual salary of $14,500. In Massachusetts, that laborer, even while earning the state minimum $11 an hour, still earns just $22,000.

The poverty level for a family of four is $24,900.

She talked about programs that have helped improve the lives of some such as fuel assistance, housing assistance and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which have kept 920,000 out of poverty in Massachusetts, including 200,000 children.

But she said the future is uncertain.

“What happens in Washington really matters,” she said. With the federal government facing a deficit, Congress can impose tax hikes, repeal the recent federal tax cuts or cut spending. And that could impact social service spending in the state, Wagman said.

Federal revenue comprises 26 percent of the state budget — $11 billion a year, according to the report. Cuts in Washington would mean cuts to programs here, she said.

To help bring people out of poverty, Wagman said, there needs to be an investment in early childhood education and improvements in public education.

Frank Robinson, vice president of public health and community relations at Baystate Health, who served on a panel to address need, repeatedly talked about changing the funding for health care to look at issues such as housing, transportation and the environment because those are factors in public health.

State Rep. Aaron Vega, D-Holyoke, another panelist, said he wasn’t surprised by the report. “It validated what we already knew,” he said.

He said needs such as good jobs and transportation are the same in both urban and rural areas.

Linda Dunlavy, executive director of the Franklin Council of Governments, said the population in Franklin and Berkshire counties is dropping, which translates to less government aid. “(As our) poverty levels are increasing, the aid we’ve been receiving in Franklin County has been going down,” she said.

Dunlavy said the county needs help when it comes to transportation because public transit is unavailable to many. She suggested smaller buses to make trips to rural communities and funding assistance to help poor people repair their cars.

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