A new study has found that the disparity between the haves and have-nots is mounting in Boston’s northern suburbs as a growing number of local families struggle to overcome economic and social inequities.
The report, unveiled at a Harvard Law School forum Tuesday, shows the region’s wealth has become increasingly concentrated over the past three decades. What once was a gap between the haves and have-nots is now a chasm, leaving more families than ever unable to make ends meet.
The Metropolitan Area Planning Council report, called “State of Equity in Metro Boston,’’ studied 101 communities inside Interstate 495 and found that income inequality in the region is higher than in 85 percent of the other metropolitan areas across the country. In metropolitan Boston, the poorest fifth of the population in 2006 earned a median annual income of about $20,000, while the richest fifth earned a median $212,000 per year, roughly 10 times as much. By contrast, in 1979 the top earners made about seven times as much as the lowest fifth.
“The upper class is running ahead and everyone else is trying to play catch-up,’’ said Jim Goebelbecker, chief executive officer of Housing Families Inc. The Malden-based nonprofit provides shelter and support services to homeless families in Malden, Medford, Everett, and Revere.
“We see it in the increase in the number of inquiries we’re receiving,’’ said Goebelbecker. “It’s directly related to the income disparity.’’ He noted that there are now more than 1,300 families living in hotels and motels statewide at the state’s expense, up from 1,000 families just 10 months ago.
Even in a languid real estate market, the region’s poor often have difficulty finding a place they can afford to live, Goebelbecker said. Ideally, families should spend no more than 30 percent of their income on housing expenses, because, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, a household spending more than that is “cost-burdened and may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation, and medical care.’’
More than half of all households - both renters and homeowners - are cost-burdened in Chelsea, Revere, Lynn, and Everett, the planning council report found. And while homeowners do better than renters, on average, with the median housing cost for homeowners about 6 percentage points lower than that of renters, more than half the homeowners in Chelsea and Revere spend more than 30 percent of their income on their mortgage and related housing expenses, such as utilities, property taxes, and insurance. Nahant, Lynn, Malden, and Everett closely follow with slightly less than 50 percent of owners paying too much for housing.
“People can’t meet other basic needs when they’re paying 40 percent of their income for housing,’’ said Goebelbecker. “We’re trying to develop affordable housing on our own - we’re adding five more units in Revere - but the problem is so large, we can’t produce enough units.’’
By contrast, families in Boston’s outlying suburbs are faring much better. During the recent foreclosure crisis, less than 2 percent of mortgages were subject to foreclosure filings in many North Shore communities, including Hamilton, Ipswich, and Essex, where median annual household incomes are between $80,000 and $100,000. In both Topsfield and Wenham, where the median annual household income is greater than $100,000, less than one-quarter of households are cost-burdened.
The widening income disparity has deepened social inequities and solidified high levels of segregation, even as the region becomes more diverse. Between 2000 and 2010, minority populations grew 6.3 percentage points; today, 40 percent of the region’s children under 5 are members of racial minorities. Still, communities within the study area remain highly segregated, with the largest concentration of minorities and Latino residents living in Boston and its ring cities.
By 2010, the report found, 75 percent of Chelsea’s population consisted of minorities and Latinos, the highest percentage in the study area. Lynn was also a city dominated by minorities, with 52 percent of its residents belonging to a racial minority group or identifying themselves as Latino.
The report, which was funded by the Barr Foundation, noted that income differences occurred along racial lines, with nearly one in four Latinos and one in five African-Americans in the study area living in poverty, compared with just 7 percent of non-Hispanic whites.
As a result, minority students are disproportionately concentrated in poor and high-poverty schools, as indicated by the number of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. The report found that nearly three quarters of African-American and Latino students and more than one third of Asian students attend schools where more than half of the students live in poverty. By comparison, just 7 percent of non-Hispanic whites attend high-poverty schools.
The impact is sobering: Among third-graders, there is a gap of 40 percentage points in reading proficiency between white and black students, and among 10th-graders, white and Asian students score “proficient’’ or “advanced’’ on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam at rates nearly double those of Latinos and African-Americans, the study found.
The study also noted that citizenship status plays a significant role. Metropolitan Boston’s foreign-born population has increased by an estimated 2 to 3 percentage points since 2000, with noncitizens now accounting for roughly 10 percent of the study area’s population. These residents may face special hardships, the report stated, since citizenship status can have financial implications and affect access to public benefit programs, such as federal grants for education, public housing, and subsidized health insurance.
“It’s clear; if you can’t access the services that you need to get a toehold in this country and to begin building your life here, it’s going to make your progress extremely difficult,’’ said Marcia Drew Hohn, director of the Immigrant Learning Center Inc.’s Public Education Institute in Malden. She noted that language barriers often compound the difficulties that immigrants experience. Statewide, there are 13,330 individuals waiting for English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL, services, including 785 on the wait-list at the Immigrant Learning Center.
“Language is a huge hurdle,’’ said Hohn, noting that it typically takes about five years to become truly conversant in a new language. “Accessing healthcare services, understanding bus directions, preparing your taxes: These are all tasks that require good reading skills, being able to read and write. It’s the basis for everything else.’’
Despite the challenges, she said, “Immigrant entrepreneurs are making enormous social and economic contributions to the Commonwealth. They’re creating jobs. Unfortunately, their contributions have gone largely unrecognized in economic development circles, so the kind of outreach and support that the businesses need to thrive and grow has not been developed.’’
The planning council is now drafting a policy report that will outline key recommendations for helping the region become more just and prosperous. The region’s equity-related goals include building a wider diversity of housing in all communities; increasing access to healthy food, air, green space, and medical care; and equipping all residents with the tools they need to succeed in tomorrow’s economy.
“Without deliberate action to reverse the disparities documented in this report, demographic trends will only worsen the toxic effects of inequity in our region [and] our region’s economic competitiveness will suffer,’’ said Mariana Arcaya, a report co-author and planning council public health manager.