A Massachusetts model for reaching neglected America
We’re making progress in lifting the ‘other’ Bay State
THE 2020 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION has started and voters in neglected parts of the country will likely determine the outcome. Both parties will plan how to win voters in the Rust Belt and rural America with proposals to address their needs, and Massachusetts stands as a model.
That may seem like a jarring claim. But only if the lens is fixed on the Greater Boston region, which too often is the reference point used to define the whole state. In fact, in recent years we have acted in several important ways to bolster our more remote regions. But we must do more.
Like the Rust Belt and rural America, parts of Massachusetts experienced decline as manufacturing jobs left. In Pittsfield, GE once employed 13,000 people. Now an empty 250,000 square foot building stands as a hollow memorial to that era.
Parts of western Massachusetts feel neglected from the economy and politics of the state capital, and it should be no surprise. Our televisions show Albany newscasts and New York Jets football rather than Beacon Hill policy debates or the New England Patriots, because of outdated Federal Communications Commission regulations.
As we work to reverse these regional trends, our basic infrastructure is not even in place. Our transportation systems do not efficiently link us to local jobs or regional economic centers. Most small towns have gone too long without high-speed internet. We spend more than other parts of the state on education because of enrollment decline, flat state funding, and aging buildings.
But what makes Massachusetts different is we are working to address all three. First, rail that connects all regions of the state has seen a rebirth due to legislators from western Massachusetts. A one-year study of high-speed rail to connect the Berkshires and Boston has started. A pilot of service from Hartford through Springfield to Greenfield starts in June of this year. And another pilot connecting New York City and the Berkshires will begin in 2020.
Second, connecting all towns with high-speed internet has been a priority. To close the tech gap, Massachusetts has invested $135 million since 2008. It has taken too long, but by 2020 every town will be connected with high-speed internet. As a result, home values increase, children gain access to 21st century technology, and the potential for remote working can help our towns grow again.
Third, last year Massachusetts established rural sparsity aid for education. The Legislature required the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to review the fiscal condition of rural schools. They found rural schools pay more per pupil for teachers and transportation, among other things. Rural sparsity aid ensures curriculum is not harmed as a result. This year the overall education funding formula is being reviewed and sparsity aid should be part of it.
These are important first steps, but more must be done. An urgent priority is job development. While the state has genuinely hot markets, other areas struggle to recover from the Great Recession. Massachusetts needs a rural and neglected areas jobs strategy.
Each year Massachusetts provides hundreds of millions of dollars in tax incentives to stimulate job growth and business development. Yet most go to the greater Boston area and large companies. That is important, but it is time to incentivize investment in small towns and small businesses as well. A Massachusetts Rural Jobs Act could attract capital investment to businesses in small cities and towns to create jobs and attract new businesses.
Another industry we have not capitalized on is outdoor recreation. It is big business—$600 billion nationwide—and a rural job creator. We have the natural assets within driving distance of major population centers. Massachusetts should create an Office for Outdoor Recreation to position the state as an industry leader.
Regulations made in other parts of the state often don’t apply to small town realities. And smaller populations make it harder to win state grants when you can’t achieve the same return on state dollars. We should create a commission to right-size regulations and grant programs. It could use technology to make government fit the people and places being governed, not the other way around.
Western Massachusetts is showing incredible signs of revitalization. Our rich manufacturing history, strong communities, and access to nature make us proud. But recovery has been slower than other parts of the state and concerns about making ends meet, paying for college, and retiring with dignity are stifling.
Key investments, including several initiatives launched since the 2016 election, provide hope at this moment, and ensure access to opportunity is not determined by the zip code one lives in.Massachusetts benefits from standing up for every corner of the land. Presidential candidates will as well.
Adam Hinds is the Massachusetts state senator for the Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin & Hampden District. Previously he spent nearly 10 years in the Middle East with the United Nations.