OPINION: Lies and Rural Stats

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OPINION: Lies and Rural Stats

By Lee Harrison and Lisa Moscynski, Co-Chairs, Rural Issues Committee of the Massachusetts Democratic Party

If Mark Twain were alive today, he would have been amused by Evan Horowitz’s article, “City and Country Folk: We’re Mostly the Same in Massachusetts” because proves his maxim that “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.”  And while many of us west of Rte. 495 shake our heads and chuckle in disbelief at Mr. Horowitz’s findings, articles like this can do real harm to real rural Massachusetts.

We don’t know how Mr. Horowitz defines “rural,” but in the vast majority of small towns west of Rte. 495, people definitely do not earn “approximately the same incomes” as people in Newton or Brookline.  Of course, Mr. Horowitz uses averages, which is always a red flag, for a man can easily drown in a stream with an average depth of one foot.  Besides, median values, i.e., half above and half below, are much better tools for comparison.

According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data, the annual median household income in Berkshire County was under $50,000 – the lowest in the state – with Hampden County next lowest with just over $50,000.  Franklin and Bristol counties were under $60,000, as was Suffolk County, which includes many wealthy and poor families.  At the other end of the income spectrum are Norfolk ($88,262) and Middlesex ($85118) counties, which shows how proximity to Boston skews the numbers.  Worcester County ($65,313) is below Essex ($69,068), which is roughly the middle of the pack.

Unemployment rates show the same kind of discrepancies between Boston-centric and real rural Massachusetts.  In February, while the unemployment rate for all of Massachusetts was 4.2%, in Berkshire County the rate was 5.3%, in Hampden 5.6%.  Nantucket, Dukes, and Barnstable counties were even higher, but seasonal employment in those regions is certainly a factor.  By contrast in Suffolk, Norfolk, and Middlesex counties – Boston and its suburban ring – the rate was 3.5% or lower.  This is a critical difference, a story that averages don’t tell, and Mr. Horowitz should know that.

And despite what Mr. Horowitz would like us to believe, voting our voting patterns differ markedly, too.  As analyst Brent Benson notes:  “While western Massachusetts, the Boston Metropolitan Area and other urban areas, the tip of Cape Cod, and the Islands show strong Democratic tendencies in statewide elections, Central Massachusetts, parts of the North Shore, and Southern Massachusetts – from Tolland in the west to Dennis in the east – are much more Republican.”

In fact, WBUR reported on April 12, that, “In central Massachusetts, you can travel from New Hampshire to Connecticut or Rhode Island entirely through towns that voted for President Trump.”  The radio station also noted that, “As many as 90% of voters in the central Massachusetts towns where Donald Trump received more votes for president than Hillary Clinton still view the president ‘very positively’ and believe he will, eventually, deliver on his campaign promises.”

So, yes, contrary to what Mr. Horowitz has written, Massachusetts voters are indeed divided.  And unless our leaders see past superficial articles like this and reach out to improve education, transportation, and the economies of our real rural areas, the gap will only increase.


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