A defining challenge of our time is more and more evident right here in our communities: the deepening divide among rich and poor. Poverty is rising at the same time that the number of affluent part-time residents is increasing. The region is losing working-class and middle-class families, who are leaving in search of higher paying job opportunities elsewhere. We heard people express concern that as income inequality increases, tensions among residents may also grow. Some worry that the interests and needs among different groups do not always intersect, and that building community cohesion can be more difficult as a result.
While there is a wide range of median household income levels in the region’s towns and cities—from just under $35,000 to over $100,000—most (54 of 68) have median household incomes that exceed $53,600, the U.S. median.
However, incomes have not kept pace with inflation in over half the region, so many workers are earning less today than they did in 2000.
Growing Poverty Rates, and Concentrated Poverty
Overall, the region has a slightly lower than average poverty rate, 12% compared to the national rate of 13%.
But poverty has increased in almost three-quarters of the region since 2000, and by one-third or more in a majority of towns and cities. In a handful of areas—the three cities as well as several small towns—as many as one in five residents is living in poverty. Two census tracts, in Hudson and Pittsfield, face concentrated persistent poverty, meaning 20% or more of the population has lived in poverty for three decades.
More Vacation Homes, More Struggling Renters
The percentage of homeowners—70% of households compared to 63% nationally—is relatively high and increasing.
At the same time, the number of properties used as second homes is growing. In 23 of the region’s 67 towns and cities, at least one-quarter of the housing is second homes. The highest rate was 57% for an individual town (Otis, Mass.) and 26% for a BTCF subregion (northwest Litchfield County). The overall rate was 13%.
Meanwhile, the affordability crisis for renters continues: 40% pay more than 35% of their income on housing.
One in Eight Families Facing Hunger
Here in a richly agricultural region, a significant portion of the population remains food insecure, a term defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a state in which “consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year.” Across the country and here at home, households with children are more likely than others to be food insecure, and the number of food insecure seniors is expected to grow significantly in the next decade. One Berkshire County estimate showed that nearly 12% of the population faced food insecurity, on par with recent U.S. averages. In Columbia County, over 10% of residents are estimated to be food insecure. Data on the entire region shows that close to 12% of households receive support from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, to help put food on the table. Another 6% not currently accessing SNAP are eligible for it.