By Bob Seay
Nov. 18, 2011
BOSTON — In the November installment of our series “Where We Live,” WGBH News reporters have gone to cities and towns around the Commonwealth to share stories of people — from those who have given up on the American Dream to those who have embraced it and managed to survive and even prosper in a bleak economy.
But these mostly positive stories have been told against a backdrop of mostly negative economic data derived from the 2010 US Census.
The independent think tank MassINC has titled its analysis: “Meeting the Challenges of the Bay State’s Lost Decade.” It tells the tale of a middle class hit hard by the loss of 150,000 jobs since 2000.
What's happening with the American Dream in Mass.?
Ben Forman, research director for MassINC, elaborated on the findings.
WGBH News: Where We Live
“For the first time in decades median household income has declined in Massachusetts by about 6 percent. And median family income — that was just about stagnant over the last decade. That hasn’t happened before,” he said.
And the economic effects are evident in how people reported feeling to MassINC researchers.
“When we asked people over the last 10 years ‘Has it become easier or more difficult to live the kind of life your family wants to live?’ 54 percent said more difficult. Only 11 percent said easier,” he said. “When we asked, looking ahead, if the next generation will be financially better off or worse off, 48 percent said worse off. Only 17 percent said better off.”
Forman said that while we’ve been losing middle-income jobs it’s been difficult to attract new businesses here that have those jobs.
The state’s high cost of living, he said, “makes it very difficult for businesses to locate here, especially businesses that are employing middle-income workers, because middle-income workers feel those costs most intensely — and so they’d rather be in a place like North Carolina or Arizona or somewhere where the costs are lower.”
This recession has hit younger people very hard, especially college graduates, Forman said: “Over the last decade we created about 240,000 jobs for people over age 55 and we lost about 220,000 jobs for people between ages 25 and 44.”
Making the situation worse for recent graduates is the fact that Massachusetts has a grayer-than-average workforce. Since 2000 there has been a 44 percent increase in the number of workers age 55 and older, with many hanging onto their jobs because of concerns about their own financial futures.
But what about our many high-tech and life sciences firms — aren’t they creating jobs? Not enough, Forman said.
“We gained jobs and outperform the country in life sciences and some small niche sectors but those certainly aren’t enough to replace the middle-income, middle class jobs that we’ve been losing,” he said. “The industries we’re been creating here, often there’s three people in the world who can do the job the company is looking for. So no matter how hard we try, we’re not always going to fill those [jobs] with homegrown talent.”
Forman said the challenge is not so much incubating companies but keeping them here after they hatch, because often what they make can be produced anywhere and by a much smaller workforce than the industries of old.
Possibilities and pitfalls
MassINC researchers said things we could do to improve the situation include boosting tax credits for lower-income earners to help them meet the high cost of living and promoting the development of affordable housing especially in urban areas.
And, Forman said, there are some things we should not do, such as abandoning the state’s commitment to K-12 education or not maintaining our transportation infrastructure
“The reason those companies are going to be successful is because of the MBTA and because they can get to Kendall Square, the innovation district and the Seaport, to the new Northpoint area that’s being developed or the new life sciences center that Harvard is going to build in Allston,” he said. “If we let the MBTA fail it would be a huge economic development loss for us. We have the most talented people on earth and they get treated like cattle every day on their way to work. And I think there we have to ask ourselves: Do we want to lose those people? Where are they going to go?”
Although many think Massachusetts is well poised, with its intellectual capital, to take advantage of any economic recovery, the road to prosperity is fraught with danger — including the expected cuts in federal spending on defense and health that would be felt here more severely than anywhere else. Experts have also been concerned about the economic health of the countries that Massachusetts is counting on to buy our high-tech products and technology.
So is there hope?
“I think anyone would be crazy to doubt America and Massachusetts in particular,” Forman said. “Sometimes it takes us a while but we figure it out.”
The word “reinvention” is heard throughout the WGBH News “Where We Live” series. It’s something we New Englanders are proud of: our ingenuity and ability to adapt and change course. Those talents have led to some success during this recession — and they will be needed to meet the challenges ahead.
WHERE WE LIVE: COMPLETE SERIES