Poverty Casts Shadow In Rural Berkshires

Economic downturn brings hardships behind the scenes for families in tourist area known for the arts

WHEN summer comes to the green, rolling Berkshire hills, tens of thousands of people flock here to hear music at Tanglewood, to see dancing at Jacob's Pillow, to attend the Shakespeare theater, or to visit the art galleries and museums.

But just offstage at this world-renowned arts center, down the back roads, and along the side streets of little towns, there is another Berkshire.

"We're talking about real poverty," said David Brown, program director for the Berkshire Community Action Council, based in Pittsfield, 134 miles from Boston. "Out of a county population of about 139,000, we fed about 12,000 people last year with our commodity food program," he said. "And if you really need food, the program is a drop in the bucket - because we offer food once every three months."

For Shirley Clapper, director of Berkshire's Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), a nutrition program for low-income pregnant women and their babies, the affluent image of the Berkshires overshadows the reality of many women and families in need.

"In WIC we served about 2,000 women last year," she said, "and over the last five years the numbers have continued to rise. I've done this job for 10 years here, and I know the need out there is much greater." Decline in manufacturing jobs

In the Berkshires, as in many rural counties in the United States, the rapid decline of manufacturing jobs over the last 20 years severely affected the base of the local economy. Year-round recreational and tourism facilities and retirement communities are limited here, and not a major source of jobs. Most summer jobs provide low wages.

"In 1980 there were 8,000 employees at the General Electric plant in Pittsfield," said Bruce Farren, the GE spokesman for western Massachusetts, "and by 1990 it had dropped to 4,300. Berkshire is in a transition now, from a mainly blue-collar manufacturing-based economy to a service economy."

Within this transition, the Berkshires are also experiencing the same challenges to cultural values and norms occurring in communities and families throughout US society.

"Berkshire is seen as place of prosperity," says Ms. Clapper, "but not the Berkshire I see. People are experiencing more stress here, more problems. There are high-risk children, hungry children with lead poisoning, children living with a mother who has three or four kids, all with different fathers. And we see more pregnant teenagers these days." Hungry children

A 1991 study on hungry children in Massachusetts done by the Community Childhood Hunger Identification Project (CCHIP) included rural areas of western Massachusetts. The study concluded that "1 in 4 children under 12 in [the state] is hungry or at risk of being hungry." The study also said that of the families in the study, "82.7 percent of all low-income households were experiencing hunger or were at risk of being hungry during the 12 months prior to the study."

Many eligible people do not participate in welfare programs because they are unaware of the services, resist welfare because of the stigma, or are unwilling to submit to bureaucratic inquiries. (Available services, Page 7.)

For June (not her real name), a 31-year-old single mother who lives in an apartment in Lee with four children, and who receives AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), hunger is not unknown to her children.

"We might have cereal but no milk," she said, "or bread but no butter. And when the kids come home from school and want a snack, sometimes there isn't anything."

In Pittsfield, the Rev. Willard Durant is the director of the nonprofit Christian Center, a converted church supported by city and church funds and open to anyone in need of food, clothing, or help.

"We served about 23,000 meals last year," said Mr. Durant. "The people come from everywhere, the cities and the rural areas. This town is really good for stepping forward with money and volunteers to help us."

Although there is no typical profile of the rural poor in the Berkshires, or anywhere else, there are characteristics and conditions shared by the poor.

First, because salaries of many low-income working families have not kept pace with the cost of living, it simply costs more for basic necessities. Even with two incomes, many rural families can be below the poverty line and in financial distress.

In the CCHIP study, working families spent an average of only $2.30 per day per person on food after paying for shelter, child care, medical care, and transportation. This figure falls well below the minimum amount recommended by the Massachusetts Department of Public Welfare.

Second, according to a 1991 study on child poverty in America by the Children's Defense Fund, many single mothers are poor and dependent on help. "As the proportion of children in female-headed families has grown, the child poverty rate has surged," said the report. Mostly single mothers

Living in a new subsidized-housing complex outside of Lee, Jane Merrett, her two children, and husband, David, are the only married couple among the 10 other families. "Most of the mothers here are single with two or three kids," she says. Her husband drives a school bus 20 hours a week. Rent for their apartment is $233 a month.

Mr. Farren of GE said, "It's unfair to characterize Berkshire as some kind of `Dogpatch' for the poor. Yes, the economy is changing to a service economy, but we have several big papermaking plants here, and Martin Marrietta recently bought GE's aerospace group here. And the plastic industry is doing well here."

In early June Massachusetts Gov. William Weld helped launch the federally sponsored Massachusetts Rural Development Council, an effort to improve rural economic conditions.

"[Rural areas] have serious poverty," he said, "but it's not as visible as you see in a housing project in an inner city."

Massachusetts now joins 34 other states in establishing a rural council.

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