EDITORIAL: Take A Closer Look

HERE’S YOUR QUESTION: The unemployment rate; Yes or No? (tick, tick, tick… Bzzzt)! Ooohhh. I’m sorry, you’re wrong. The answer is–It Depends! Good luck finding a job. Now let’s meet our next player.

But, wait, a low unemployment means fewer people looking for work, which has to be good news. And the word this week from the state Department of Labor that Columbia County’s unemployment rate in June was 3.5%–the lowest jobless rate of any county in the whole state–should make us proud.

Economists know that unemployment this low often involves folks who are between jobs or don’t have the skills that local employers need. But we don’t need economists to convince us that having a job is a good thing. Besides, the numbers crunching crowd always finds something to turn good news sour.

One of the clouds they see comes from wage increases. They want to know whether all these people with jobs are able to make ends meet with what they earn. Nationwide, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in June 2017 hourly average wages were up 0.8% over the last year. Well, it’s something. Trouble is, the consumer price index rose twice as fast in the same period, increasing 1.6%. It’s hard to keep up with the bills when the bills grow faster than your paycheck.

What does this mean for residents of Columbia County and is there anything we could do about it? One place to look for more information on these questions is a new, free publication by the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation called A Closer Look. The publication has a 21-word subtitle that explains more but before we get to that, start with two assurances: it is easy on the eyes and it might tell you things you didn’t know and should hear about where we live and work.

The Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation (BCTF) is a 30-year-old, non-profit foundation that manages charitable funds aimed at assisting communities, organizations and individuals in all of Columbia County as well as towns in northeastern Dutchess County, northwestern Litchfield County, CT, and Berkshire County, MA. All these places have characteristics and problems in common.

Now consider the other part of the title of A Closer Look and ask yourself if any of its topics match your concerns about this county: Jobs and the Economy, Demographic Transition, Youth and the Future Workforce, Deepening Inequality, Assets and Infrastructure.

BCTF hired a consultant, Mt. Auburn Associates, and then the foundation and the consultant talked to over 2,000 people in the region. The resulting publication has pretty photos and readable graphs and accounts for all our scenic and cultural assets. And then, because the authors asked people here what we think, the tone darkens with observations, like: “Poverty is rising at the same time that the number of affluent part-time residents is increasing. The region is losing working-class and middle-class families, who are leaving in search of higher paying job opportunities elsewhere.”

It’s not news, but it is the truth. A Closer Look has the data to support it.

If you’re wondering what any of this has to do with the unemployment rate, consider this from the publication: “Incomes have not kept pace with inflation in over half the region, so many workers are earning less today than they did in 2000.”

Does this apply here, where so many people have jobs? Maybe, if you factor in another of the data points in A Closer Look, which reminds us: “In Columbia County, over 10% of residents are estimated to be food insecure.”

The value of the data in A Closer Look will diminish quickly, replaced by the 2020 Census figures and augmented by ongoing surveillance of us civilians by government and industry. But even then, what remains will be a template useful to everyone involved in public policy in this county and the region.

A Closer Look delivers more than fun facts for policy nerds. The foundation has money that can be used as a catalyst. It can jumpstart or enhance local efforts to address at the impacts of the economic and social changes happening all around us.

The publication is not a blueprint for anything. It’s a set of facts and observations unique to this place and time. It could become the basis for discussions about how BTCF funds can do the greatest good for the people among who are most in need of help. See for yourself.

A Closer Look is online at the BTCF website, www.berkshiretaconic.org

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