Between haves, have-nots, an ever greater gulf
The state's poorest make less than in 1979, new study finds, while upper incomes climb
NORTH ADAMS - Economic inequality has grown across Massachusetts, but no one has to tell Mindy Shoestock that.
Laid off several years ago from a $12-an-hour job as a housekeeping supervisor at a ski lodge, she took a job at a local McDonald’s, where she earns just $9 a hour. Cable TV and a phone are luxuries she simply cannot afford; some months she runs out of money to buy food for her two children.
“I feel like I’m going backwards,’’ Shoestock said, hot and tired after a recent shift. “Sometimes I feel like I work just to work.’’
Shoestock, 29, is part of a forgotten economy. While family incomes across Massachusetts have generally risen over the past three decades, the state’s poorest residents have fallen behind. And nowhere have they fallen farther than here in Western Massachusetts, where families in the bottom fifth of the income scale have seen inflation-adjusted earnings drop below 1979 levels, according to a new study by University of Massachusetts economists.
The study paints a stark picture of two commonwealths, in which the gap between rich and poor, east and west is growing. For example, the inflation-adjusted median income of affluent families in Greater Boston has grown 54 percent since 1979, to $230,000 from $150,000 a year, largely due to high-paying technology jobs.
In Berkshire County and the Pioneer Valley, where decades of plant closings have left hollowed-out economies, the inflation-adjusted median income of the poorest families fell 24 percent, from $21,000 a year in 1979 to $16,000 - on par with some of the most impoverished parts of Appalachia.
“No real income growth over three decades is what we’re seeing - no improvement in the standard of living,’’ said Michael D. Goodman, one of the study’s authors. “It’s a lost generation of families.’’
Those families live in places like North Adams, in the shadow of Mount Greylock along the state’s westernmost edge. North Adams’s population has declined every decade since 1950 as mills and other manufacturers disappeared. Rising poverty and the recent recession took another toll when bedrock employers, such as the local hospital and city government, laid off workers.
Mayor Richard J. Alcombright described the financial condition of the city, on a scale of great to horrible, as “just a little below horrible.’’ The unemployment rate here was 9.7 percent in June; by contrast, Waltham, an industrial city near Boston, had a 6.3 percent jobless rate.
One-fifth of North Adams households make less than $20,000 a year, and about half of those earn less than $10,000 annually. One economic bright spot, if it can be called that, is the potential expansion of a Wal-Mart, which could bring about 20 new jobs.
Such problems are hardly evident to tourists, who drive along the heights of the Berkshires and look down at the city’s steeples and picturesque beauty.
From a distance, “you think this is a place held in the palm of God’s hand,’’ the mayor said. “But there are struggling families in this community, and many of those folks are working.’’
It would be hard for McDonald’s customers to imagine Shoestock’s precarious financial situation after seeing her on the job, where she efficiently directs workers and was promoted to shift manager a year ago. Yet her $360-a-week paycheck (before taxes) does not cover her monthly bills. Her July rent ($575 a month), child care ($900), and car insurance ($75) alone consumed almost all her earnings even before factoring in food, electricity, and gas costs.
She survives by putting off creditors, negotiating installment plans, and taking advantage of government programs. When her sons, Unique Dudley, 8, and Jazz Dean, 11, return to school in few weeks, she will eliminate the summer’s day-care expense. But in October, the single mother will begin paying as much as $500 a month to heat her drafty apartment in an old wooden tenement.
Any unforeseen expense - a car repair or medical problem - can plunge a difficult financial situation into crisis. Shoestock learned last spring that, because her pay went up after her promotion, she no longer qualified for $400 a month in food stamps, a lifeline that helped keep her family fed. She has since had the benefit restored.
On a recent weekday, she came home from her shift to a sweltering apartment, two hungry sons, and an empty refrigerator. She gets a free meal during each McDonald’s shift and handed her sons french fries she had saved.
“When I say I have no food, I have no food,’’ she said, exposing an empty freezer. “What are we having for dinner tonight? Whatever they have at the food pantry.’’
Al Bashevkin, executive director of the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, a community organizing group, said Shoestock’s story is not uncommon in an area that is largely overlooked. The state recently shuttered its unemployment office in North Adams, forcing residents to travel to Pittsfield, a $20 round trip by bus.
“Rarely do we talk about jobs to help these people,’’ Bashevkin said. “They just move from jobs at McDonald’s to Dunkin’ Donuts to Burger King to a motel and back to McDonald’s.’’
Greg Bialecki, state secretary of Housing and Economic Development, said the state is building infrastructure in Western Massachusetts - such as a $75 million effort to expand broadband access - and is hoping to bring the “innovation economy’’ and jobs to the region. The state also offers job training programs for low-income residents.
“We also realize in some parts of the state that are particularly challenged, it is important to fight for and try to grow some of the lower-skill, lower-wage kinds of jobs,’’ Bialecki said.
Shoestock began her career at a disadvantage: Pregnant at 16, she completed a GED program for teen parents and was trained as a receptionist. When she could not find work answering phones, she took low-wage jobs in a warehouse and McDonald’s until landing a housekeeping position at Jiminy Peak ski lodge in Hancock. She was elevated to supervisor and paid $12 an hour until her employer lost the contract.
Shoestock was laid off. McDonald’s, where she had worked years earlier, hired her back.
After her promotion, she said she must complete a McDonald’s manager training workshop to be eligible for pay increases and bonuses. She has been waiting a year for the company to send her.
The money is sorely needed: She recently learned she is pregnant with her third child.
Lightly-freckled with long hair in braids and a pierced tongue, Shoestock sat in a booth after a recent shift, her face still flush from kitchen heat. Her children, she said, are one of her few joys in life. And although not yet 30, she said she had worried that she would soon be too old to have another baby. “Sometimes I feel like I’m 45,’’ she said.
Shoestock dismissed the idea that she could move someplace with better opportunities because higher living expenses would absorb any pay increase. Such a move would also separate her from a fragile network of relationships, like Tina, an upstairs neighbor who lets Shoestock use her Internet and phone, or Aleta, a former social worker who rallied her church to donate money for Christmas presents for Shoestock’s sons.
Shoestock left work on a recent afternoon and, still wearing her McDonald’s uniform, headed to a food pantry in a church basement near her apartment. She was still wrangling with a state caseworker over her food stamps eligibility at the time, and her children needed to be fed.
Shoestock and her 8-year-old left with two bags of bread, cereal, canned vegetables, and other items that will have to last at least a week. She was especially excited to receive two cans of Chef Boyardee ravioli, instead of the usual one.
“I just wonder,’’ she said, “will I ever be financially stable?’’
Megan Woolhouse can be reached at email@example.com.