In Recovery

The recent New England Community Outlook Survey, conducted by Regional & Community Outreach colleagues Anthony Poore and Kaili Mauricio, found a growing concern among survey participants about addiction and the impact it is having on the economic strength of communities.

So I was interested to see something upbeat in Worcester, a cafe that helps recovering addicts gain job skills. Brian MacQuarrie has the story at the Boston Globe.

“Reyman Ortiz and other staff at Cafe Reyes live at the affiliated Hector Reyes House, the only residential treatment center in Central Massachusetts for Hispanic men struggling with substance abuse.

“ ‘It’s a natural high,’ said Carlos Echevarria, a 48-year-old longtime heroin addict who worked as a barista this day. ‘I get up in the morning, and I love coming here.’

“The cafe, which opened Jan. 19, is the brainchild of Dr. Matilde Castiel, the executive director of the Hector Reyes House, who believed she had a recipe for success. The staff share an affinity for Latin food, language is less of a barrier at the cafe, and peer support is an arm’s length away.

“ ‘It also gets them out of their environment and helps them know people outside of recovery,’ said Castiel, a native of Cuba, who is clinical associate professor of medicine at UMass Medical School. ‘It has a certain effect of bringing life into them.’

“That sense of life is as much a part of Cafe Reyes as Cuban sandwiches and black bean soup. Latin music provides a pulsing, upbeat ambience; the walls are awash in vibrant color; and quiet chatter fills the 42-seat dining room.

“But more important, for Castiel’s purposes, is that the smiles on the weathered faces of hardened men exude a sense of life renewed.” More here.

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Vermont’s Ag Giant

How is Vermont’s dairy industry doing post-recession?

Michelle Monroe writes at the St. Albans Messenger, “While much of the conversation over the past year regarding Vermont’s dairy industry has focused on its environmental impacts, agriculture advocates want Vermonters to know the industry is responsible for $2.2 billion in state economic activity annually.

“That $2.2 billion combines the value of dairy products themselves, profits earned by farmers and the wages of their employees, and the spending of the money generated by the dairy industry. …

“Ken Jones of the Agency of Commerce and Economic Development wrote the recent study of dairy’s economic impact. He began his analysis with the value of the milk and dairy products produced in Vermont. He then added the $55 million in wages earned annually by the state’s farm workers and the profits of farms, $142 million. To that he added the wages of those whose work supports farms directly such as equipment salespeople and those who transport milk, along with the wages of people who work in dairy manufacturing facilities.

“Putting it all together, Jones found dairy’s direct economic impact is $1.7 billion.

“Because dairy is three percent of Vermont’s wages, he then assumed dairy workers and farmers accounted for three percent of consumer spending such as grocery, cars and other household spending, which added another $413 million to the total.”

More here.

On a related topic, see “Latino Dairy Workers in Vermont,” by Daniel Baker in the Boston Fed’s Communities & Banking magazine.

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Tough to Find Work Near Home

The Associated Press recently followed up on the story of the Detroit man who was walking 21 miles to work. A crowdsourcing campaign solved his problem, helping him get housing closer to work, but not everyone is so lucky.

Paul Wiseman writes, “James Robertson’s arduous 21-mile daily walk to a low-wage factory job, widely reported last month, is just an extreme version of an increasingly common problem: Finding a job near home is getting harder for millions of American workers. And long commutes are especially tough on the poor and on blacks and Hispanics.

“A Brookings Institution report Tuesday finds the number of jobs within typical commuting range dropped 7 percent between 2000 and 2012 in major US metropolitan areas.

“Metro jobs near poor people, many of whom cannot afford cars, fell 17 percent, versus a 6 percent drop for those who weren’t poor. Jobs near Hispanics fell 17 percent, and those near blacks dropped 14 percent.

“Elizabeth Kneebone and Natalie Holmes of Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program used Census Bureau data for 96 big metro areas to find how many jobs were available within each area’s median commuting distance — a figure that ranged from 12.8 miles in Atlanta to 4.7 miles in Stockton, Calif.” More here.

On a related topic, see a recent Boston Fed Communities & Banking article on calculating the affordability of walkable communities by taking transportation costs into account.

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Rhode Island Public Housing

Thanks to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Rhode Island cities and towns will be able to do a better job of stewardship of existing public housing.

Mark Schieldrop writes for Patch that several RI municipalities are sharing a HUD grant.

“Nearly 30 Rhode Island cities and towns will receive a portion of $3.3 million in federal funding to support public housing, U.S. Sen Jack Reed has announced. The money, through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, will be used to support operations, upkeep and maintenance of public housing facilities. …

“The HUD Public Housing Operating Fund provides local housing authorities with funding to assist in the efficient management and operation of public housing units, including routine preventative maintenance, anti-crime and anti-drug activities, service coordination for senior and disabled residents, and energy conservation efforts. Local agencies can also put the funding towards debt incurred in the rehabilitation and development of public housing units, as well as the costs of insurance.”

More here, including a list of the towns receiving money.

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Discussing Race in America

There’s been a lot of ridicule for the Starbucks effort to get Americans talking about race (PBS reporter Gwen Ifill tweeted an observation that being asked to discuss race before her first cup of coffee “would not end well”), but here at the Boston Fed we’ve been discussing race at monthly lunch meetings for seven years.

My African American colleague and I got off to a slow start. Coworkers were wary. When almost nobody came, we would look at each other and say, “Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.” But gradually the effort grew. Today many colleagues come and go, drop in when they can, check it out. The bottom line: over time, we have built up an extraordinary level of trust for honest conversations about our different ways of reacting to what we read in the news and our own experiences.

Here is a Rachel Swarns article in today’s NY Times about workers in another company tying to do something similar.

“After an uneasy start, finding common ground to discuss race relations at work. A Staten Island man found ways to overcome the social awkwardness of having frank discussions in the workplace about race relations.” Read the article here.

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Considering Connecticut Tax Reform

Bo Zhao and Jennifer Weiner, of the Boston Fed’s New England Public Policy Center, were invited by groups in Connecticut to expand their understanding of “municipal gaps” from Massachusetts to the Nutmeg State. A municipal gap is the difference between revenue and unavoidable (usually state and federally mandated) costs. Poor communities tend to have large municipal gaps, and states struggle to fill them in some way.

In a presentation this week, the researchers highlighted Connecticut’s main municipal-gap challenge: the reliance on property taxes in a state with very rich and very poor municipalities. Several presentation attendees wondered about the likelihood of tax-reform efforts to reduce the inequalities.

A partial answer to that question may be seen in a recent Hartford Business Journal article. Brad Kane wrote, “Democratic lawmakers have fired preliminary shots in the state’s long-discussed efforts to reform the property tax system with regionalization proposals that could pit cities vs. suburbs. A bill introduced by Democrats’ two Senate leaders would aid urban centers that have high mill rates and huge swaths of tax-exempt property, but could add to the burden of surrounding towns, whose lower tax rates are key to attracting businesses and residents.

“Senate Bill 1 (SB1) still is in its early stages, but it broadly outlines several major reforms including creating a regional tax system for new development and a statewide mill rate for motor vehicle taxes, as well as retooling the state’s payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) program, which reimburses municipalities for tax-exempt properties.

“Meanwhile, House Speaker Brendan Sharkey (D-Hamden) has a slate of proposals designed to cut local government costs and encourage cooperation among cities and towns. …

“It’s unclear what ideas have a realistic shot of becoming policy, but the array of proposals underscore the importance legislators have placed on tax and municipal government reform. The stakes are high for the business community, which often identifies the property tax as its most burdensome levy in Connecticut.”

More here.

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How Can the Poor Build Assets?

Here at the Boston Fed’s Regional & Community Outreach department, Ana Patricia Muñoz has been studying the enormous wealth gaps between whites and people of color, going into detail on a number of different groups in the Greater Boston area. (Read about the report’s kickoff event here.) Inequality of income pales in comparison with inequality of assets (what lower-income people have been able to put aside for emergencies and aspirations like college or home ownership).

In Washington, CFED has long been working to help the poor correct that imbalance, using asset-building strategies such as individual development accounts, which have a matched savings component.

With the same goal in mind, CFED has recently worked on tax reform, receiving recognition in the NY Times this week. CFED sent out this e-mail:

” ‘When it comes to the government, taxing is often just another name for spending.’ So begins an article by Patricia Cohen on the front page of this morning’s New York Times Business section. In the article, Cohen uses CFED’s analysis of over $340 billion in federal spending to argue that programs designed to help Americans save and build wealth typically only reach the wealthiest American households.

” ‘Those at the tippy-top of the income scale,’ Cohen explains, ‘received an average of $33,391 in federal tax payouts,’ while those in the bottom 60% averaged less than $1,000.

“The data cited in the Times article was first published in From Upside Down to Right-Side Up, an analysis by CFED’s Jeremie Greer, Ezra Levin and Ida Rademacher. The experts examined the enormous size of federal tax programs designed to help Americans build wealth and found that the vast majority of federal spending goes to the highest-income households. The report concludes with policy proposals to turn these ‘upside-down’ tax programs ‘right-side up’ in order to help all families go to college, buy a home, save for a rainy day and build a stable retirement. Download From Upside Down to Right-Side Up or its accompanying three-page brief.”

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