A better way to address regional inequality
Proposals of DiCara, Waskiewicz aimed at wrong targets
IN THEIR RECENT PIECE “Bridging the urban-rural divide in Mass.,” Lawrence S. DiCara and Matt Waskiewicz address the issue of regional inequality. They explain how the erosion of manufacturing jobs has caused the decline of outlying rural areas around Massachusetts. To address the issue, they propose, as part of “a framework of urban-rural mutualism,” three solutions: incentivizing large Boston food consumers to buy produce from Massachusetts farms, promoting rural tourism and recreation, and building commuter rail between Springfield and Boston.
Indeed, regional inequality has created large problems for our society. People who live in areas in decline have fewer career, educational, and social opportunities. In booming Boston, the high cost of living erodes the potential of cities to equalize outcomes and improve people’s lives. As the authors note, the diverging futures of Greater Boston and the rest of Massachusetts result in an increasing partisan divide in elections. So it is disheartening to see well-meaning authors misunderstand the nature of regional inequality and propose solutions that would only reinforce regional hierarchy. Regional inequality in the state is about the predominance of Boston compared to peripheral urban areas — not rural decline.
DiCara and Waskiewicz’s proposals are insufficient and aimed at the wrong targets. If anything, they would result in retrenchment of the metropole-periphery relationship between Boston and the rest of the state.
In Massachusetts, regional inequality is a relation between urban areas, not between city and country. Around 92 percent of the state is urban. Even in rural areas, many people commute to small cities for work. Thus rural agriculture and tourism will never be able to replace the jobs lost as industry deserted Massachusetts’ small towns and cities. Agriculture in particular is subject to the same forces of mechanization and consolidation that have resulted in the decline of manufacturing jobs.
We have much simpler, better tools for ameliorating regional inequality.
Invest in health. As DiCara and Waskiewicz note, rural Massachusetts has worse health outcomes and life expectancy than in Greater Boston. As in rural areas across America, heroine and meth are big problems. Massachusetts should spend more money on health care, drug treatment, and rehabilitation. Besides being a basic, necessary social service, health spending can act as an economic catalyst, as hospitals become major regional employers. The California legislature recently introduced a bill to explore single-payer universal health care. Massachusetts, long known as a health policy innovator, should follow California’s lead.
Build more housing. Bay Staters from outside Boston should be able to move to Boston to take advantage of its economic opportunities. The state should make lowering the cost of housing in Boston a top priority, both through allowing more private development and by expanding public housing. Public housing should be built or acquired in Massachusetts small towns, too. For the elderly in particular, even if a house is affordable, it may be unrealistic to live in a single-family home in context of land-use patterns that require traveling long distances to buy groceries or see a movie.
“Right-size” transit. Rather than wasting money on a Springfield-Boston link destined for low ridership, the state should invest in systems that can improve people’s lives locally. Connecticut’s CTfastrak bus rapid transit system between Hartford and New Britain shows the potential of building cost-effective, high-capacity links between mid-sized New England cities. We should investigate similar corridors in Massachusetts, such as Fall River/New Bedford or Northampton/Springfield. In addition, the state should expand dial-a-ride options in rural areas and small cities, particularly for those who can’t (or can’t afford to) drive.
Regional inequality is a huge issue, both within Massachusetts and in the nation as a whole. We must address our solutions directly to those living in declining industrial towns around the state — not to an imaginary rural hinterland of farmlands and hayfields.Simon Jacobs is a software developer and amateur urbanist who lives in Cambridge.