How far a median income goes in one community depends on many factors outside a family’s control. Knowing how to help when hardship strikes can make MetroWest communities better for us all.
By Amy Paquette
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, THE PARMENTER FOUNDATION
MetroWest Boston: Great schools. Quiet neighborhoods. Accessible to public transportation and the Mass Pike. It is no wonder that the individual towns and cities that make up Boston’s western suburbs are perennial contenders in popular “Best Places to Live” lists.
In the past decade, the economic recovery has delivered consistently higher property values to the area, as demand to live in these communities has only grown. But even in a region that enjoys significantly better-than-average wages, the story is the same in MetroWest as it is around America: cost-of-living – particularly housing — still considerably outpaces wage growth.
For a middle-class family, “making it” in MetroWest requires an economic high wire act, managing an exceptionally high cost of living while avoiding hardships almost entirely out of one’s control: an unexpected death, job loss, family illness or mental health crisis that can send the family budget crashing down. As the executive director of a foundation that funds nonprofit programs that serve as the first point of assistance for MetroWest residents affected by serious illness, end-of-life, or hardship, I understand how unexpected, largely uncontrollable life events can impact families.
Highlighting the economic pressure middle income families face in our communities – combined with raising awareness about the services they may access when beset by a hardship – can help more families “make it” in MetroWest.
How Far Can a Median Income Go?
To put this analysis into real dollars, we selected Framingham, the community at the geographic center of the 11 towns and cities generally included in the term “MetroWest Boston.” Framingham is not only the most populous city in the region, it also serves as a geographic anchor the other ten communities moor themselves to for industry, commerce and other services.
In 2018, the median income in Framingham was $79,136, with an average household size of 2.4 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By using publicly available data, we attempt to measure what percentage (in cents) of every dollar of income goes into the area’s high cost of living. Where assumptions are made, we include them.
Housing: 17.1 Cents (Rent), 35.1 Cents (Own)
High demand, low inventory and growing population have created high obstacles to home ownership in MetroWest, particularly when wages have not kept pace. Framingham’s higher density and lower median income, naturally, reflect a much higher number of households who rent, rather than those who live in their own home. The median gross rent in the city was $1,359 from 2014-2018, according to the Census Bureau. This consumes 17.1 percent, or 17 cents of every dollar earned.
Few would accept, however, that renting would constitute “making it” in MetroWest. Home ownership is still the cornerstone of the American dream and the central way most households build wealth. At $2,322, the median mortgage for homes in Framingham from 2014-2018 immediately demonstrates how fine a line there is to economic security for a median income household in MetroWest – consuming 31.7 cents of every dollar earned by the median income family in “monthly owner costs” (a Census Bureau term), which do not factor in expenses for utilities like heating, cooling, water and sewage, to say nothing of routine home repairs and maintenance.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the most common root causes of homelessness for families in the MetroWest area are the lack of affordable housing combined with low earnings.
At The Parmenter Foundation, we see this through the work of one of our grant recipient programs, Family Promise Metrowest, which seeks to transform the lives of families with children who are homeless.
Eliz Portal, a program coordinator for Family Promise Metrowest, frequently sees the delicate economic balance fall apart for a family. Often, providing $1,500 – or even less – can ward off homelessness for an entire family. After intervention, she will also provide intensive case management with these families to work on budgeting to sustain rent.
A change an income – from a layoff, to hours cut on the job, to a divorce or unexpected death – is the most common destabilizing factor that can put a family on a collision course with homelessness. Relocation – often necessitated by an increase in rent – can also present a bevy of new rental deposits that can be onerous for a family without any financial reserves.
“Homelessness can happen to any family that does not have a financial cushion or someone who can provide a place to live while they get back on their feet,” Portal said. “A person or family on this trajectory tends to close themselves off. They’re embarrassed and wait too long before asking for help.”
Family Promise Metrowest provides shelter to families in transition, education like budgeting that can ward off the economic spiral downward, and comprehensive support to inspire families to preserve and dare to dream for a better future.
Health Care: 7.21 Cents
Even in Massachusetts, which adopted a universal health care plan across the Commonwealth before passage of the Affordable Care Act at the federal level, health care costs present another great potential peril for the median household trying to make it in MetroWest.
Annual health care costs consume 7.2 cents of every dollar earned by the median income family, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditures Survey for the Boston-Cambridge-Newton Metropolitan Service Area (MSA), which also encompasses the MetroWest communities located in Middlesex County.
While extraordinary progress has been made in the realm of coverage since the passage of universal health care legislation, the middle class is at particular peril under the current health care regime: a $79,136 median income in Framingham, even for a family of four, represents the income level where health care subsidies begin to disappear entirely.
Without delving into the levels of insurance coverage households select for their health care, the median income presents a discrete line where families are “on their own” to pay deductibles and other out-of-pocket expenses when beset by an unexpected family illness.
These income thresholds also reinforce a misconception of the middle-income household: if the wages were derived from a single earner in a single job, it is likely the job would come with employer-sponsored health insurance. But what if multiple earners are working multiple jobs in this household to earn those wages? It is far less likely those jobs would come with these employer-sponsored benefits – and there would be no subsidies to help make up the difference.
This tenuous spot in the health care subsidy regime can also reduce mobility: if a household does enjoy employer-sponsored health care coverage, they are likely to endure a period of weeks or months without health insurance, if it is the subscriber who changes jobs. A health care emergency during that period can snap the economic high wire act; many presumably do not pursue better opportunities because of this risk.
At MetroWest Free Medical Program, another Parmenter grant recipient program, volunteer physicians, nurses and dozens of volunteers offer evening medical clinics to assure MetroWest individuals and families have access to high quality health care, regardless of their ability to pay.
“There are thousands of people across the Commonwealth who are slipping through the cracks of universal coverage because their income makes them ineligible for subsidized programs,” said Rick Iacobucci, the program’s executive director. “Often, they’ve put off addressing a health issue because they thought their situation would change, soon.”
The vulnerability does not end there. Lack of health care insurance, for people of any income level, also makes it harder to find a doctor.
MetroWest Free Medical Program sees this entire spectrum, from patients who need to get medication for a chronic illness to those who need to see a doctor for an acute health crisis that cannot wait. They also help patients navigate the complicated health insurance system – an additional bit of support which can make all the difference in reconnecting a patient to the mainstream health care system.
Food: 12.2 Cents
The average annual spending on food in the Framingham area is $9,667, or $805.58 per month, according to the BLS Consumer Expenditure Survey. This constitutes 12.2 cents of every dollar earned by the median income family. But by not adding assumptions about household size, our analysis may be underestimating the impact of food costs on the median income family in MetroWest. Larger households, with more mouths to feed, have greater food expenses than the average household.
Once again, government assistance thresholds classify the median income in Framingham to be well above the income level eligible for programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. A median income family in MetroWest, according to the government, is on its own to feed itself.
For the past 21 years, Laurie Hojlo has seen this dynamic at the Parmenter Food Pantry, which is funded by The Parmenter Foundation. Located in Wayland, the food pantry serves residents in a community where the median household income in 2018 was $174,330, nearly double that of Framingham.
Hojlo says her friends and neighbors are often oblivious to hunger in their own community.
“Some of the families who do deliveries to families in need will come back and say, ‘I had no idea there was such a neighborhood here,’” Hojlo said. “A lot of people don’t realize the child that sits next to theirs in school is relying on support from the food pantry.”
While the Parmenter Food Pantry serves many low-income families, Hojlo says more can be considered solidly middle-class, who turn to assistance when beset by a hardship like an unexpected death, job loss or medical hardship.
A Dollar, Squeezed
These three expenditure areas: housing, health care, and food represent more than half of the monthly income of a median-income family in Framingham. When you book other typical expenses:
A median-income family in Framingham who wants to own a home faces nearly 83 cents of every dollar tied up in just these six areas, before budgeting utilities, personal insurance, childcare, and retirement or college savings.
Can the middle class make it in MetroWest?
A Community’s Choice
Today in MetroWest Boston, a family may access a small, one-time check to ward off arears and eviction. In another community, a patient may seek medical care or help getting vital prescription drugs to ward off a chronic illness. And even in the most affluent of MetroWest communities, another person might walk into a food pantry to ward off hunger.
In each case, the desirable quality of life in MetroWest can cloud our awareness of how its high cost of living can imperil our neighbors. Economic security, mobility and opportunity are critical factors to a healthy community, even for those of us who are fortunate enough never to face the specter of economic hardship.
Awareness alone, however, will not keep our communities strong and healthy for everyone. Nor can we wait for government solutions to fill every crack in the system that can imperial the livelihood of people living in our communities. We must accept that we all play a role in making certain our communities thrive for everyone.
In this same community more than a century ago, Jonathan Parmenter understood that social contracts – investments that members of a community make in one another and future generations – were critical to a prosperous community. I am proud to lead the foundation in his name, which continues to seed organizations that are upholding our social contracts to each other.
 Massachusetts State Income Tax Tables
 BLS Consumer Expenditure Survey