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Incomes rise, but many Mass. families still in need

Mass. poverty rate is same as costs go up; For some, economy’s gains of little help

Median household income rose slightly in Massachusetts between 2013 and 2014, while the poverty level remained essentially unchanged, according to census data to be released Thursday. But the need among low-income families is growing in many parts of the state, social service agencies say — in some cases exceeding levels seen during the recession.

Many factors contribute to this apparent discrepancy. Housing and heating costs continue to rise in Massachusetts as hourly wages stagnate, putting more families on the margins, even if they are not considered poor by federal standards, according to public policy researchers. In addition, rising household income is not being distributed evenly, with the largest share going to the highest-income households.


“While the economy has improved, it has improved less for the lower-income people we serve,” said Carl Nagy-Koechlin, executive director at South Shore Housing in Kingston, which runs several housing assistance programs. “Whatever improvements there may be with wages and lower unemployment are wiped out or worse by rising housing prices.”

Overall, however, Massachusetts fared better than the country as a whole, according to 2014 American Community Survey data from the Census. The median income rose to $69,160 a year, up 2 percentcq since 2013, while nationwide, the median income ticked up 1 percent.

The state poverty level was at 11.6 percent, about the same rate it was in 2010, compared to 15.5 percent nationally.

In Massachusetts, which adopted a universal health care law in 2006, the percentage of residents without health insurance declined slightly, to 3.3percent in 2014 from 3.7percent the year before, the Census reported. Nationally, the uninsured rate fell to 11.7 percent from 14.5 percent as Medicaid expanded and more people had access to insurance through the Affordable Care Act.

Though the Massachusetts economy has moved in the right direction, with higher employment rates, lower levels of cash assistance, and stable food stamp usage, the state has become less affordable for some people, largely because of rising housing costs, said Mark Melnik, acting director of the Economic & Public Policy Research group at the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute.


The federal poverty level is the same for every state — $24,250 for a family of four — and does not accurately capture the numbers of families living on the edge in a high-cost state like Massachusetts, Melnik said: “You might not technically be in poverty, but you’re in need.”

And the need is growing in many communities, including many outside the Boston metropolitan area, according to social service agencies.

The Salvation Army, which has 32 centers across the state offering food and heating assistance, served more than 59,000 families last year, a 58 percent jump since 2009.

In North Adams, the number of meals served at Salvation Army soup kitchens doubled between 2013 and 2014 — possibly a result of people moving there in search of affordable housing, but struggling to find work, said Salvation Army spokesman Drew Forster.

In Athol and Pittsfield, the Salvation Army centers have had significant increases in people visiting food pantries and seeking help paying heating bills. In the past, many of the needy were individuals and elderly on government assistance. But in recent years, more and more families are showing up for meals, said Captain Elliott Higgins, who recently became commanding officer in Pittsfield after overseeing the Athol center for the past five years.


“Positions that are available are minimum wage to $12 an hour,” Higgins said. “If you’ve got two parents, three or four children, that just doesn’t cover the expenses.”

Housing assistance is in great demand across the state, according to antipoverty advocates. In Lowell, 12,000 people are on the waiting list for Section 8 housing subsidies, said Peggy Shepard, grant director at Community Teamwork, which also operates two family homeless shelters. The average wait for a voucher: 10 years.

“The need is ever-growing, unfortunately,” Shepard said.

The numbers of people in need has remained steady on the Cape and Islands, said Frederic Presbrey, president of the Housing Assistance Corporation on Cape Cod, but their situations are more dire: more people struggling with addiction, fewer with the education and skills to succeed in today’s economy.

“They come with us with nothing by way of ability to support themselves,” he said.

Across Boston, the story is similar. The number of people served annually by the antipoverty agency Action for Boston Community Development has grown to a projected 108,000 clients this fiscal year from fewer than 95,000 in 2010. John Drew, ABCD’s chief executive, said the gap between haves and have-nots has become more “startling” over the years, with pockets of intense poverty around the city.

Indeed, the only segment of wage earners in Massachusetts that experienced statistically significant growth in income between 2013 and 2014 were households earning more than $200,000 a year, growing by nearly one percentage point, according to the census data.


“We haven’t changed really any of our real structures that will help alleviate poverty and child poverty,” Drew said. “We’re triaging it, we’re doing our best to make people not fall off the map, we’re doing our best to make sure they don’t freeze in the winter and don’t starve.”

But, he said, “We’re not solving problems.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.