Moving Forward: Acushnet Avenue Economic Impact Study

By Michael P. McCarthy, MPP Candidate, Graduate Research Assistant, Public Policy Center at UMass Dartmouth

Our study of the economy of the Acushnet Avenue commercial corridor in New Bedford, “Corridors of Opportunity: Acushnet Avenue Economic Impact Study,” was posted on the Public Policy Center’s website a few weeks ago. This marks the end of the research process that saw myself, along with my fellow research assistants, trekking through the Acushnet Avenue neighborhood and surveying businesses.

The nearly 70 business owners the research team spoke to provided in-depth informant interviews, which allowed us to develop a report that conveys the concerns of the business community. The major takeaways from these interviews can be found in the Key Findings section of the report’s executive summary. Also, some these topics are explored in detail in other posts I’ve written about the project.

The report also outlines recommendations for building upon the foundation of recent improvements and revitalization activities underway in the neighborhood. Our conversations with business owners and stakeholders highlighted the need for a merchants association. Most of these conversations were spurred by a survey question about the feasibility of creating a business improvement district (BID) for the commercial corridor, similar to the efforts underway in downtown New Bedford. When they were willing to speak on the subject, business owners expressed that while the services a BID would provide may be beneficial, there are a number of services the city should be providing more frequently. A merchants association would give the Acushnet Avenue business community a collective voice to advocate for increased and improved services.

Writing about commercial revitalization in Economic Development Quarterly, Stacey Sutton (“Rethinking Commercial Revitalization: A Neighborhood Small Business Perspective,” 2010) explores the value of merchants associations over BIDs in minority and immigrant neighborhoods. “As voluntary organizations,” Sutton says, “merchants associations typically have less public leverage but greater latitude over organization mission, operations, delivery of support services, and participation in political activities.” With interviewees regularly citing the complexity of New Bedford’s licensing and permit process as an obstacle towards doing business, there is a clearly a need for, as Sutton puts it, “institutional mechanisms, such as associations, that can efficiently coordinate and disseminate information regarding the regulatory environment, as well as the norms, practices, and politics shaping day-to-day business activities.” The benefits of a merchant association are two-fold. They can improve communication between existing businesses and city hall, and act as a guide on how aspiring entrepreneurs can best conduct business in the neighborhood.

The point on helping new businesses getting off the ground is particularly important for the Avenue’s future. Many businesses interviewed for the study have been open for five years or more. These interviewees also predicted flat growth for the coming years, saying they did not anticipate increases in their customer base. So sustaining the revitalization momentum may mean opening new businesses, these fledgling establishments will need assistance navigating regulatory requirements. An active merchants association can fill this role.

Also, a merchants association can help shape the future of this changing neighborhood, which has long a destination for immigrants arriving in New Bedford. While the Portuguese were the dominant cultural influence for decades, a recent increase in Latin American immigrants is diversifying the ethnic make up of the Avenue. As new businesses open to support the shifting needs of the immigrant community, they will need guidance in norms and day-to-day practicalities, as Sutton discussed.

Above all, the creation of a merchant’s association would give the Avenue’s business community a collective voice in future decision-making. If a group of merchants were able to collaborate upon and independently articulate a shared vision for the future of Acushnet Avenue, then they could play a key role in shaping discussions on neighborhood’s future.

Major themes emerging from Acushnet Ave study

As you may know from my previous posts, we have been studying the economic impact of businesses in the Acushent Avenue commercial corridor with the help of grant from the Garfield Foundation. With the assistance of the CEDC, we convened a steering committee to help us define a study area for the project and help inform our research team. At the end of September, we began a survey of business owners. Among other things, the survey asked for employment and revenue history, business longevity and estimated customer residency. We also asked for general thoughts on neighborhood conditions, and gauged receptiveness to the formation of a business improvement district. Throughout the survey period, which lasted until early November, we conducted interviews with 69 business owners or managers. The population we spoke with reflects the range of establishments doing business in the neighborhood, from auto service stations and large manufacturers to fledgling cafes and multigenerational restaurants. While, the people we spoke with expressed an array of opinions, they agreed on a few key issues.

A major theme throughout our interviews was the number of opportunities for the neighborhood:

  1. Owners identified the conditions of the neighborhood as crucial to their success. These opinions were tied to questions about cleanliness, safety, and the public perception of the neighborhood. Some owners cited what might be called a lack of pride in the neighborhood, noting that they often have to clean trash left on the sidewalk outside of their business by residents and visitors. Others pointed the lack of proper lighting and a low police presence near their business as incubators for criminal activity. Regardless of their major concern, our interviewees recognized that these elements feed a negative perception of the neighborhood, which they feel limits the number of customers from other areas. Indeed, nearly half said that 50 percent or more of their customers live within walking distance.
  1. However, since their clientele is so hyper-local business owners have many direct interactions with residents throughout the day. There is an opportunity for the business and residential communities to build on this relationship, recognize their shared interests, and work together to effect change. Neighborhood groups must actively engage with the vibrant business community here. Greater alignment between the missions of these major stakeholders means a greater chance of having the needs of this neighborhood met. Through organization, they can broadcast a clear message to city officials.
  1. Our interviews revealed that the business community is ready to organize and receptive to the formation of a merchant’s association. Such a group could advocate for the needs of the community at state and local level, securing more resources for the part of the city they represent. Indeed, our research demonstrated that under current conditions many interviewees lacked knowledge of the number of assistance and incentive programs available. An active and aggressive merchant’s association would be an effective intermediary between the government and nonprofit entities that administer such programs and the community.

The results of our study will be released on December 15, and it is our hope that neighborhood organizations, such as this one, will be able to use our findings to advocate for more resources and better services. Check back here for more updates on this report’s release.

 

Context and Poverty: Mental Health

An observation about American political life that leaves me perplexed and saddened is that we, as a society, seem to ignore the influence of context on individuals. I generally consider “context” in this discussion to mean factors both internal and external to the individual over which they have no control. This observation is most readily detected in debates surrounding poverty in which some argue that the impoverished are responsible for their plight. Yet, contextual factors are strong. For instance, perhaps two children have similar medical conditions that affect school performance but only the family of child A can afford insurance. Child B may not have the same educational opportunities later due to interference from their untreated ailment. Loss of educational opportunities may, in turn, leave child B vulnerable to financial strain or extended poverty. This is an extreme hypothetical case, but we can all find less salient examples of the influence of contextual factors if we are honest about our own lives.

There exist tangled webs of relationships and befuddling patterns of causation that surround the development and maintenance of poverty. To explore this may induce headaches, but it is worth doing. Why, you might ask? If we fully reject the influence of context and instruct the impoverished to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps,” then we write them off as a loss and do not feel compelled to help. This is misguided at best and inhumane at worst. Yet, intuitively we know that contextual factors are not the only ones involved. Reality lies somewhere between these extremes. Exploration of this issue through research allows us to better understand the complex nature of poverty and to develop more effective ways of addressing this social ill. I am planning on posting multiple times regarding this issue, but I thought that I would start by examining mental health and poverty.

A social gradient in mental and physical health exists (Reiss, 2013), which means that health status depends on socioeconomic status such that the poorest citizens have the worst health. Unfortunately, this phenomenon can be observed around the world in both poor and rich nations (World Health Organization, 2014). Please see the graph below for an example of the social gradient. It shows self-reported health status by income for the state and select cities. The data in this graph come from the Massachusetts Community Health Information Profile (MassCHIP), which is managed by the Massachusetts Department of Health.

Consistent with the social gradient, research suggests that poverty-related stress increases the risk for mental illness and that severe mental illness increases the risk of experiencing poverty (DeCarlo Santiago, Kaltman, & Miranda, 2013). The former illustrates the power of the external context of poverty (e.g., increased stress, lack of social support) over the individual, and the latter underscores the impact of “internal context.” Again, I define “internal context” as an attribute of the individual over which they have no control. Moreover, this bi-directional relationship suggests a vicious cycle in which an individual could easily become trapped in poverty. This may have the strongest effect on children in poverty, as development of a mental illness as a child would likely have lifelong negative effects. What can research tell us about the social gradient in mental health in children?

Reiss (2013) reviewed studies published in either English or German that examined the relationship between low socioeconomic status (SES) and mental health issues in individuals between the ages of four and 18. Of the 55 studies reviewed, 52 found an inverse relationship between SES and mental health such that children experiencing poverty were two to three times more likely to develop mental health issues than their peers. Sadly, the review also found that the gradient was strongest in early childhood. Importantly, mental health problems were reduced by an increase in SES, suggesting that societal intervention can be beneficial to children in poverty. Thus, we can short-circuit the bi-directional relationship mentioned above.

In sum, there are complex relationships surrounding the issue of poverty in America. While we often downplay the role of context in our political debates, it is an influential force in the generation and perpetuation of poverty. Development of a mental illness is not a choice, but rather the result of an intricate set of interactions between genetic predispositions and physical and social context. The social context of poverty contributes to the development of mental illness, but mental illness itself is a contextual factor in the social condition of poverty. This bi-directional relationship can be overcome, which has strong and positive implications for efforts to raise children out of poverty.

-Jason Wright

References
DeCarlo Santiago, C., Kaltman, S., & Miranda, J. (2013). Poverty and mental health: How do low-income adults and children are in psychotherapy? Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session, 69, 115-126. doi: 10.1002/jclp.21951

MassCHIP, Massachusetts Department of Health. (2014). Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System: General health status. Retrieved from http://www.mass.gov/eohhs/researcher/community-health/masschip/general-health-status.html

Reiss, F. (2013). Socioeconomic inequalities and mental health problems in children and adolescents: A systematic review. Social Science and Medicine, 90, 24-31. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2013.04.026

Poverty Demographics for Fall River & New Bedford, Massachusetts

Poverty, like many other economic phenomena, does not affect all population sub-groups equally. Historically marginalized populations like racial minorities, women and youth are often disproportionately affected by poverty. This is especially true in Southcoast Massachusetts cities Fall River and New Bedford.

Data from the US Census Bureau shows that 23.2% of Fall River and 21.6% of New Bedford residents live below the poverty line. However, in Fall River, 36% of youth live in poverty, and in New Bedford, 31.1% of youth live in poverty. The highest poverty rates are among Hispanics (59.7% in FR and 39.9% in NB) and single mothers of 3 or 4 children (77.8% in FR and 72% in NB).

The charts below present poverty data by race, family type and age group, gathered from the American Community Survey’s 2008-2012 5-year estimates. The percentages depicted represent varying rates of poverty among different demographic groups that compose a portion of total city population.

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image(4)                                  *High margin of error for families with 5+ children, small sample size

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*Very high margin of error for families with 5+ children, small sample size, not included

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Data comes from the US Census Bureau, American Fact Finder. 2008-2012 American Community Survey 5-year Estimates. Access at http://factfinder2.census.gov.

View data tables below.

Read more

Acushnet Ave Economic Impact Project Update

After the first meeting of the steering committee, we are moving on to the next phase in our study of Acushnet Avenue’s economy. For early September, our research team is drafting a survey to be distributed to business owners in the Acushnet Avenue commercial corridor. After incorporating helpful comments from our colleagues at the CEDC, who have extensive knowledge of the Avenue’s business climate, we will begin surveying business owners. A major challenge is keeping the survey brief enough to be manageable for busy owners to complete in a short time, but also extensive enough to get an understanding of the challenges facing businesses in the area, where they get materials and employees, their working capital, earnings, access to technology, and opportunities for growth and future investment. Hoping both for a large response rate and meaningful answers from those who do respond, we will open the survey period later this month and conclude in mid-October. 

Since the report will also examine the role place plays in the Acushnet Avenue economy, we have contacted New Bedford’s Office Housing and Community Development. Eddie Bates is hard at work analyzing GIS information so we can have better understanding of the physical and built environment of the Avenue and it’s side streets. The data we receive from Housing and Community Development will show the location of trees, street lighting, public spaces, benches, and give us a detailed look at the housing density surrounding the commercial corridor. The office will also be aiding us as we investigate occupancy and vacancy rates. I’m very interested to see if we can determine vacancy by floor, as well as by building. Although getting street level space occupied is still a challenge for building owners along the Avenue, upper level tenants (whether mixed-income residential or commercial) will be key in securing long-term vitality for the neighborhood.

As the survey period wraps up, I will be going over Census and business records for the study area. With this analysis, I am hoping to show how the make up of the neighborhood’s residents and businesses has changed over time. Culling through the wealth of information we obtained from the ReferenceUSA historical business database, I have already noticed an increase over the last five years in grocery stores serving the needs of Central and Latin American immigrants.

Check back in for updates on the survey process and on our one-on-one discussions with steering committee members.

July project update

Here’s a rundown of our projects and tasks for July:

1. Friends Academy/Center for Education Innovation (CEI) evaluation

We recently wrapped up a survey of elementary school teachers across the New Bedford Public Schools in order to determine the degree to which their feedback about things like technology, collaboration, professional development, and instruction is different than their peers who are working with CEI. We’re also crunching numbers to learn about the impact of CEI’s program on the performance of the students of participating teachers.

2. LifeWork Project

We’ll be writing the first year evaluation report at the end of this month, a report that will document the impact this program has had on participants’ academic performance, career paths, finances, and well-being.

3. New Bedford Regeneration Committee

We’re also approaching the report-writing stage of this project. The report will outline a set of action steps recommended by committee members for regenerating the economy of the city and the region.

4. Health Data SouthCoast

The network of organizations that supported our development of a website that provides easy access to regional and municipal health data is getting ready to publicly launch the site, so we won’t preclude their efforts here. All we’ll say is that it’s ready to go!

5. Taunton HOPE VI

We’re conducting our third and final resident focus group tonight, with the goal of learning about how the program has impacted residents’ abilities to enroll in job training programs and access employment opportunities. Next, we’ll go about updating data to compare current metrics to 2012 baselines in the areas of housing, economy, socioeconomic status, and demographics.

6. NEW: Acushnet Avenue commercial corridor study

Thanks to a just-awarded grant from the Garfield Foundation, we’ll be spending the next six months studying New Bedford’s Acushnet Avenue commercial corridor and the degree to which it influences the local economy. This project will involve data collection and analysis, survey research, and engaging with neighborhood stakeholders to obtain objective information with which to advance the neighborhood’s revitalization.

 

SOC 350 blog post – Minimum wage in New Bedford

Based on what minimum? Getting by on the minimum wage in New Bedford

Authors: Victoria Wood and Lioma Terrero Soto, students in Professor Gloria de Sa’s SOC/ANT 350, ‘Urban Issues in Public Policy’ (learn more about their collaboration with the UI by reading this post)

Editor’s note: Victoria and Lioma wrote a terrific paper that extended far beyond a blog post. We’ve excerpted the document here, but we encourage you to read their full report available as a PDF: Getting by on the minimum wage in New Bedford


 

As researchers who are concerned about this issue, we decided that we would explore what it is actually like to live on the minimum wage our local community. We wanted to better understand and also to bring to light the problems that minimum wage earners face so that citizens, advocates, and policymakers alike have a more accurate picture of this issue. We hope that this valuable information will be used to help formulate effective policies—instead of or in addition to raising the minimum wage—to address these struggles.

Research questions

What is it like to live on the minimum wage in New Bedford? Is the minimum wage in New Bedford enough to cover the cost of living? How do minimum-wage earners make ends meet? What types of policies could address the problems of minimum wage workers?

Methods

We first calculated the monthly and annual wages of minimum wage earners working 40 hours a week in New Bedford using the Massachusetts minimum wage. We then compared the monthly wages of minimum wage earners to current cost of living data for New Bedford. To calculate the cost of living in New Bedford, we used two different cost of living calculators. We used the Crittenton Women’s Union (CWU) Economic Independence Calculator and MIT’s living wage calculator. . . . To supplement our cost of living research, we also looked at apartment listings in New Bedford to find actual rent costs for one and two bedroom apartments. We looked at the rent for one and two bedroom apartments in three different apartment complexes in New Bedford. We also looked independent apartment listings on Zillow and Craigslist and calculated the mean rent for one and two bedroom apartments (based on seven apartment listings for one-bedroom apartments and seven apartment listings for two-bedroom apartments).

Finally, we conducted ten interviews with New Bedford residents earning the minimum wage. Four of the interviews were conducted by phone, and six were in-person. . . . We conducted interviews with seven women and three men. All interviewees were adults over the age of 25.

We were able to compensate each participant with a $20 gift card to Stop & Shop thanks to a generous research grant awarded to us by the Office of Undergraduate Research at UMass Dartmouth.

Findings

Monthly wages of a minimum wage earner before taxes:

$8.00/hour ⋅ 40 hours/week = $320/week

$320/week ⋅ 4.35weeks/month = $1,392/month

$1,392/month ⋅ 12 months/year = $16,704/year

. . .

Interpretations/Policy Implications

Based on our findings, we have concluded that a minimum wage worker does not earn enough money to live independently. Despite this finding, many of the single minimum wage earners were not able to qualify for government assistance because they earned too much money.

Earning the minimum wage has adverse effects on physical and psychological health. Constant stress contributes to depression and feelings of worthlessness. Feelings of embarrassment about their income level were not uncommon. The workers with children expressed concern for their children’s futures because of their inability to pay for necessities and provide opportunities. Many of the minimum wage earners we interviewed felt that they were trapped due to a lack of upward mobility.

Education was regarded by all interviewees as the key to a brighter future. Having access to education seemed to be the problem; many of the workers we interviewed could not afford to go to school.

It is clear that public policy is needed to help address these pressing problems that minimum wage earners face.

. . .

Limitations

There are limitations to our study. The cost of living will inherently vary per individual/family, and the cost of living calculators can’t reflect this. Additionally, we were only able to conduct ten interviews, so we don’t have a representative sample of New Bedford residents.

Reflection

This project was humbling. The people we interviewed gave us intimate glimpses into their everyday struggles, and it made us reflect on how fortunate we are to be in school working towards our goals. This project also helped us learn how to create a detailed work plan in order to explore an issue of interest to us, and this skill will certainly help us both in our future personal, academic, and professional endeavors.

UI Evaluates Public Housing in Taunton, MA

Robert Golder, Graduate Research Assistant

HOPE VI is a public housing program administered by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Under HOPE VI, severely distressed public housing is demolished and redeveloped into new, mixed-use housing that typically is less densely populated. Attempts are also made to better integrate these new developments into adjacent neighborhoods.

A significant challenge for residents occurs as demolition displaces them into other locations or neighborhoods for, at minimum, the amount of time necessary to demolish the antiquated housing in which they lived, and to construct new housing facilities.

When the HOPE VI process was begun at Fairfax Gardens, a public housing site in Taunton, MA that had become notorious for criminal and drug activity, the Urban Initiative was chosen as the independent evaluator of the redevelopment effort, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

June 4, 2012: Dilapidated, barracks-style housing at Fairfax Gardens, a few days before demolition.

June 4, 2012: Dilapidated, barracks-style housing at Fairfax Gardens, a few days before demolition.

As part of our evaluation, the Urban Initiative was required by HUD to interview a random selection of twenty-five heads of household who formerly resided at Fairfax Gardens, which was overseen by the Taunton Housing Authority (THA). I interviewed most of these heads of household in 2013 to learn about their displacement and relocation issues, which may include concerns about family relationships, integration of relocated residents into new neighborhoods, employment and income issues, material hardships, health issues, and children’s education.

One year later, I am in the midst of a follow-up round of interviews with the same respondents. My colleague, graduate research assistant Katya Starostina, will this year conduct the interviews of Spanish-speaking heads of household.

March 27, 2013: Following demolition and site grading, the first new structures appear on site.

March 27, 2013: Following demolition and site grading, the first new structures appear on site.

Most of the displaced residents were placed by THA in Section 8 housing. This year, many respondents report that they remain in Section 8 apartments. However, there are exceptions: some families have moved back to brand-new units at Fairfax Gardens (now renamed “Bristol Commons”). A few former residents have even successfully transitioned from public to private housing.

While it is too soon to make our data tell the full story of Fairfax Gardens, these photos show the great progress that has been made on the construction site since 2012. It is my hope that this redevelopment effort will result in better outcomes for citizens of Taunton who are challenged by income and housing issues.

April 4, 2014: Residents are returning to well-designed public housing at the renamed "Bristol Commons."

April 4, 2014: Residents are returning to well-designed public housing at the renamed “Bristol Commons.”

Latino Population: An Untapped Resource for New Bedford?

Katya Starostina

Graduate Research Assistant, Urban Initiative

On Saturday April 5th, the Lawrence History Center hosted a ‘Symposium on the History of the “New Immigration” Into Lawrence, Massachusetts and Similar Communities.’ At the symposium, many experts came together to discuss the history of immigration, the immigrant experience in Massachusetts, immigrants’ vital role in entrepreneurship and urban revitalization in Gateway Cities, among many other topics.

A number of presenters focused on the experience of Latinos in Massachusetts. While Latinos make up just 9.6 percent of state population, they are more concentrated in Gateway Cities, such as Lawrence (73.8%), Lowell (17.3%), Revere (24.4%), and New Bedford (16.7%).1 Latinos make up an even bigger percentage in the public schools. They comprise as much as 90.2 percent in Lawrence, 36.1 percent in Gateway Cities overall, and 32.8 percent in New Bedford.2 The population is also quickly growing: since 2000, the Latino population grew by 59 percent in New Bedford.

The Gaston Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy Publications shared their research at the Symposium. In their 2013 report, Latinos in Massachusetts Selected Areas: New Bedford, the following selected characteristics on Latino population paint a picture worth examining.

Educational attainment_New BedfordNew Bedford’s Latino population has a median age of 24, which is much lower than the median age for the white population (39 years old). Since half of the Hispanic population is under 25, Latino students are disproportionally represented in the New Bedford Public Schools compared to their overall population size. The chart below shows how low education attainment is among Latinos over the age of 25 in New Bedford. More than half (53%) are without a high school diploma.

Jobs_New BedfordMedian Income_New Bedford                                                                      Latinos in New Bedford have a lower labor force participation rate (62%) than Latinos statewide (70%) and a higher unemployment rate (17%) than Latinos statewide (13%). As the chart on the left shows, they are working primarily low-wage jobs, with only 13 percent working in white-color jobs.

As a result, Latinos have the lowest median income ($25,651) of all ethnic groups in New Bedford – much lower than the overall median income in New Bedford ($37,493) and statewide median income ($65,981), as the chart on the right demonstrates. The percentage of Latinos in New Bedford without a medical insurance is double (14%) the rate of uninsured statewide (7%).

chart_2

Since the Latino population is so young (around 20 percent are 18 or under), the public education system can truly make a difference to turn the trend of low education attainment and low-income among Latinos around. However, as I’ve pointed out in my blog post on graduation rates, Hispanic/Latino students and English Language Learners have the lowest rates of graduation.

One-fifth of Latinos in New Bedford (3,190 people) are foreign-born, which presents significant challenges for children in public schools and parents who have to advocate for their children.1 As Helena DaSilva from the Immigrant Assistance Center related at a recent Leadership SouthCoast presentation, there are not sufficient services in place in New Bedford Public Schools for Latino immigrants and English Language Learners (ELLs). Many schools lack basic translation services for students and parents to communicate with teachers in their native language.

This topic was addressed at the Education Vision Forum that the Urban Initiative co-hosted with MassINC on March 28. A successful model of working with ELL students from Brockton Public Schools was discussed, including their Sheltered Instruction and Two-Way Language Program. The Vision presents a number of recommended initiatives, supported by research focused on these efforts, which stand on three pillars: expanded learning time, family engagement, and fostering bi-literacy.

With such a need present, New Bedford is in a position to have a high-impact on a big part of its population by adapting research-based models practiced in other Gateway Cities and schools across the country. It is crucial for New Bedford to harness all its resources in ensuring Latino students are graduating high school college-ready and are highly-skilled for jobs and entrepreneurship in the changing economy. While the challenge is great and stakes are high, cities like Lawrence have demonstrated, in winning the Working Cities Challenge, that it takes a city-wide collaboration across all sectors to successfully meet the needs of students and families.

1Data is from 2012 ACS 5 year-estimates

2Data is from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education