Being designated one of the state's 26 Gateway Cities shouldn't be a good thing.
It means that you're struggling with poverty, such as in Lawrence, where the typical family gets by on less than $30,000 a year.
Apparently, though, being dubbed a Gateway City no longer carries a stigma. It seems to have acquired cachet: At least a dozen state legislators are clamoring to get the title for their municipalities.
Framingham, Waltham, and even little Warren, population 5,000, want to be Gateway cities because it guarantees additional state dollars, sometimes millions.
Yet "it's not a badge of honor" to be a Gateway City, said Michael D. Goodman, director of the UMass Dartmouth Center for Policy Analysis. "I think it reflects the overall fiscal challenges facing Massachusetts cities and towns that there would be a competition to see who could be sufficiently disadvantaged to qualify for these benefits."
Waltham, straddling Route 128's high-tech corridor, is home to gleaming new technology companies and an expanding Westin hotel. Here, commercial property can fetch $45 per square foot, the average rent in Boston's booming Seaport District last year.
Still, it wants to be named a Gateway City.
It currently doesn't meet the criteria because its median family income is $80,000 — $14,000 higher than the state average. To qualify, a city must have a median household average income below the state average of $66,000 and a population in which 40 percent or less have a bachelor's degree or higher. Cities with a population of more than 35,000 but less than 250,000 qualify.
So State Representative Thomas M. Stanley, a Democrat whose district seat is Waltham, filed a bill earlier this year that would change the Gateway City definition to include a municipality with a 25 percent increase in students over a two-year period who need to learn English.
The city is now home to 450 immigrant children in the public schools, he said, "enough to create its own elementary school" and straining its budget. Gateway Cities are eligible for funding for summer programs that aid children learning English.
"This is an effort to draw attention to the fact that communities like Waltham should be receiving more support from the state to address these challenges," he said.
Framingham also wants a piece of the action, citing pockets of deep poverty in a community that is also home to an upscale mall and the sprawling headquarters of the retail giant TJX Cos.
Framingham's median family income of about $68,000 and educational levels (45 percent have bachelor's degrees or higher) exceed the criteria for a Gateway City, prompting State Senator Karen Spilka, a Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, to file legislation changing the Gateway Cities definition to include any municipality with "at least three census tracts with poverty rates of at least 20 percent and with median family income that does not exceed 80 percent of the statewide median family income."
Because Framingham is technically a town, she also proposed changing the program to "Gateway Municipalities."
She did not respond to calls for comment.
State Senator Benjamin B. Downing, a Democrat whose district includes the Gateway City of Pittsfield in Western Massachusetts, said he agreed that most of the places that want in on the program have needs, but that loosening the entry requirements could deplete funding and distort the intent of the program.
"Stretching the program any further would not only stretch the funds but stretch the spirit of the program,'' Downing said. "It shouldn't be a victim of its own success."
The program became law in 2009, but its origins date to the late 1980s, when Senator Patricia McGovern, representing Lawrence, coined the "Gateway Cities" term in seeking state funding for disadvantaged communities as federal money dried up.
Twenty years later, MassINC and the Brookings Institution used the term to describe 11 cities in Massachusetts that had been bypassed by Boston's high-tech fueled economic growth.
When the law was enacted, 24 cities met the original criteria, which remain in effect. In recent years, Attleboro and Peabody have qualified, bringing the total to 26.
The benefits of the designation vary by municipality, according to data collected by MassINC, ranging from $250,000 to Barnstable for a park in Hyannis to more than $210 million in New Bedford for a variety of projects, including $425,000 for a park in the city's business district modeled after Post Office Square in Boston.
The Gateway Cities Parks Program, for example, provided $1.2 million to Chicopee for the creation of Ridgewood Park and $2 million for the design of Chapman Playground and construction of the Columbia River Greenway.
The Gateway Cities MassWorks grant program has funded $16 million in streetscape and business district redevelopment projects in Brockton, $11 million in improvements to Worcester's airport, and $4.2 million for community college construction in Holyoke.
New Bedford State Representative Antonio F. D. Cabral, a Democrat and cochair of the Gateway Cities Legislative Caucus, said efforts to expand the definition have become an annual occurrence that threatens to dilute resources.
"If you allow everybody in, it loses its effectiveness, its bite," Cabral said. "It becomes like any other program."
But State Representative Elizabeth A. Poirier, a North Attleborough Republican who cosponsored a bill with eight other legislators to make any city with unemployment higher than the state average a Gateway City, said the program is simply unfair.
"Some smaller communities are desperately in need of help," she said. "I don't understand why we would discriminate."