Essex County, MA is just north of Boston and home to some very rich and very poor communities. The median household income in Boxford, for example, tops $155,000, while the median in Lawrence is less than $40,000.
The countywide median of $73,500 is nearly 30% higher than the national median, which is why many people think of Essex County as a well-off place.
But the Essex County Community Foundation knows better. That’s one of the reasons it turned to CGR to create a community indicators project that would serve as an open clearinghouse of trusted data and analysis about the community.
Now the Foundation is using that project – aptly named Impact Essex County – to take action in the community to close income gaps. The Foundation is investing $1.3 million over the next three years in a project called Empowering Economic Opportunity aimed at uncovering and addressing the root causes of income inequality.
Essex County has a high cost of living. To make ends meet, living wage models suggest that a family of four with both parents working needs to earn more than $79,000 a year – triple the poverty level of just under $25,000. A single-parent family with two children needs a similar amount, almost $73,000 – far above actual incomes for most of these types of families in Essex County. Altogether, we estimate that 38% or almost 300,000 people have incomes below what’s needed to afford the basics.
The Foundation’s project will invest in four priorities intended to make a difference: financial coaching and literacy programs at five community action agencies; a “credit for prior learning” program at North Shore Community College that will help people graduate sooner by granting credit for specialized experience; a Small Business Resiliency and Venture Fund to increase lending in low-income communities; and what they are calling Essex County Think Labs where the Foundation will convene stakeholders and experts to learn together, share ideas and pursue creative solutions.
Raising people’s incomes will not be easy, but the Community Foundation let the data on Impact Essex County lead to what is clearly one of the community’s most pressing issues. With careful implementation of its priorities and regular monitoring of progress, we will be able to see what difference it has made after the next three years.