Effective programs that help families to make ends meet, like the Earned Income Tax Credit, SNAP, fuel assistance, school lunches, Head Start, and Social Security cut the number of people in Massachusetts living in poverty by almost half and reduce the number of children living in poverty by more than half, according to a new report on poverty called “Obstacles on the Road to Opportunity: Finding a Way Forward Together.” The report was commissioned by the Massachusetts Association for Community Action (MASSCAP) and written by Nancy Wagman, Kids Count Director of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center (MassBudget).
“There are myths out there about whether or not public programs reduce the number of people living in poverty – this report shows that the programs that community action agencies administer help hundreds of thousands of our vulnerable friends and neighbors in this state stay out of poverty,” said Joe Diamond, MASSCAP’s executive director. “But it also provides valuable data about the structural challenges that must be addressed to make the economy work for everyone.”
The study notes that while the incomes of the highest income households have grown considerably over the past several decades, the same cannot be said for low-wage workers. According to the study, “national economic policies stopped emphasizing wage growth, Congress allowed the real value of the minimum wage to decline, and labor law enforcement agencies weakened protections for workers.” The positive news is that well-resourced communities in Massachusetts can help to counteract these national trends by lowering the barriers to opportunity. Still, communities with fewer resources and higher concentrations of poverty are challenged to help residents living in poverty.
“Policies that help make work pay—such as the minimum wage and the earned income tax credit—and those that help people balance the demands of work and family—such as paid family and medical leave, earned paid sick days, and affordable child care—help working families find a way forward,” writes MassBudget’s Wagman in the report. “Policies that help families make ends meet—such as those that help put food on the table or provide other income supports—can help families through hard times. Policies that help communities thrive—such as those that support safe, healthy, and affordable housing, and that support high quality local education from the earliest days and into young adulthood—help give every child the best chance at a bright future.”
The report was discussed at a forum in Springfield hosted by Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts and co-sponsored by Community Action Pioneer Valley (CAPV), Springfield Partners for Community Action (SPCA), and Valley Opportunity Council (VOC) along with MASSCAP, who commissioned the study as an update of findings that the agency released in 2014. MASSCAP is the statewide association of 23 Community Actions Agencies (CAAs) operating in Massachusetts.
“Beyond the moral obligation we have to help people who are struggling on the road to economic self-sufficiency, there are tremendous social and economic repercussions for failing to do so. This report and this forum provide a platform to define the challenges and spark critical policy changes needed to address income inequality,” said Paul Bailey, Executive Director at SPCA, who moderated a panel discussion at the event.
In addition to highlighting the findings in the report, panel participants focused on the advocacy strategies that those working to end poverty should pursue with a focus on the unique needs in the Pioneer Valley. Panelists included Representative Aaron Vega, MA Legislature, 5th Hampden District, Linda Dunlavy, Executive Director, Franklin Regional Council of Governments, and Frank Robinson, PhD, Vice President, Public Health, Baystate Health.
“I am pleased to have been a part of the forum,” said Representative Aaron Vega. “It is very important that we bring information about poverty and inequality to different regions of the state…people living with low incomes face different challenges depending on where they live. This forum furthered our understanding of critical needs like transportation here in the Pioneer Valley and moved us toward solutions we can work on together.”
This landmark report is underwritten by Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, The Boston Foundation, Cambridge Community Foundation, Eastern Bank, Essex County Community Foundation, Greater Lowell Community Foundation, Greater Worcester Community Foundation, United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, and Worcester Community Action Council. You can read the findings here (executive summary here). The report was released in May at an event in Boston. A subsequent forum will take place at Williams College on January 11, 2019.