Despite booming economy, poverty persists on South Shore

Jun 13, 2018

As reported by Neal Simpson, Patriot Ledger:

Times are good on the South Shore: The economy is booming, growing companies are scrambling to find enough workers and the unemployment rate is hovering somewhere under 3 percent.

And yet one in 10 people in Quincy continue to live in poverty, according to the federal government. Throw in those considered “near poverty” and it’s one in four.

“Far too many people are working and making just enough to cover the basics but not enough to thrive,” Kory Eng, chief operating officer for Quincy Community Action Programs, said at a panel discussion Tuesday based on the a new report from the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. “We need public policy that addresses that.”

The report, commissioned by Massachusetts Association for Community Action, points to several barriers behind the state’s stubborn poverty rate and highlights great geographic disparities in wealth across Massachusetts and the South Shore. Quincy’s poverty rate, for example, is among the lowest in Massachusetts’ larger cities at 10.2 percent, but double of that of Milton, its next-door neighbor. Poverty rates have been rising in both towns, and in Braintree and Weymouth, since 2000.

The MassBudget report traces today’s income inequality back to the early 1970s, when growth in annual worker pay in the U.S. suddenly stopped tracking with growth in national productivity, as it had since World War II. In the 45 years since, annual growth in compensation has remained stagnant at 0.3 percent.

MassBudget tied today’s persistent poverty directly to those low wages. In Massachusetts, a full-time worker making the state minimum wage of $11 an hour will make about $22,000 a year, which is bellow the federal poverty level for a family of four. Across the board, wages for all but the wealthiest Americans have remained flat on average even as the economy has come roaring back from the Great Recession of the late 2000s.

“The economy is growing but now all the prosperity, all that wealth that comes with a booming economy, isn’t going into the pockets of workers,” said MassBudget’s Nancy Wagman.

Poverty in Massachusetts persists even as the rebounding economy and low unemployment rate has many companies facing a so-called “skills gap” as they struggle to fill jobs that require some vocational or technical training but not a full bachelor’s degree. The gap, which has been seen across the country, has prompted the state government under Gov. Charlie Baker to spend millions bolstering vocational schools and launching new job training programs.

But Beth Ann Strollo, chief operating officer of Quincy Community Action Programs, said overcoming poverty would also require recognizing that people face personal barriers to taking advantage of opportunities, including the jobs available under today’s skills shortage. She said many people who grow up in poverty do not have role models to demonstrate the path through education to career or the personal contacts to connect them to employment opportunities.

The MassBudget report also concluded that one of the major barriers keeping even those working in poverty is the region’s high cost of housing. In Quincy and the rest of Norfolk County, as much as 24 percent of renters pay more than half of their income on rent. In Plymouth County, it’s as much as 26 percent.

Tuesday’s panel, held at the offices of the Quincy Chamber of Commerce, revealed some divisions among local leaders about how best to address poverty on the South Shore. Timothy Cahill, the former state treasurer now serving as the chamber’s president, pushed back against the idea that raising the state’s minimum wage could bring more people out of poverty, saying it could hurt them instead by forcing employers to forgo hires.

“I don’t know an entrepreneur or business owner who does want to pay their employees as much as they possibly can,” he said. “I don’t know an employer who doesn’t want to give their employees health care.”

What panelists did agree on was the need for a stronger, more systematic job-training infrastructure that guides students from high school to the employers who need them. Strollo said Massachusetts should look to the robust job-training programs in some European nations.

“We don’t have that sort of structure, infrastructure, in this country, and you see that this is a significant gap,” she said. “We look at the individuals who come to us for help and look at what their needs are and see how far they have to go before we’re even going to talk to an employer about employing them. There needs to be more of a structure in place.”

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