By Andy McKeever
02:00AM / Saturday, February 28, 2015
LENOX, Mass. — Food assistance for young mothers can help a lot.
But it won’t buy diapers.
And the cost of those very necessary items have become a burden on low-income mothers.
Marcy Gaul helps provide them through the newly formed Berkshire County Diaper Project, which collects donations and redistributes them.
“Our diapers disappear in days,” Gaul told the Berkshire County Commission on the Status of Women and state legislators Friday morning.
The commission is a volunteer group of local women designated as special state employees. Their role is to help guide lawmakers on issues that affect women — like the Women, Infants & Children (WIC) program not covering diapers.
On Friday, that was one of the issues legislators heard from area women.
A large crowd joined the commission at Shakespeare & Company for a legislative breakfast to tell state Reps. Paul Mark and Tricia Farley-Bouvier, and state Sen. Benjamin Downing their concerns. Topics ranged from access and cost of education to diapers to cost of legal representation to the need for family and relationship support.
According to Commissioner Roberta Dews, Berkshire County has a higher percentage of female households with children under 6 than in the rest of the state. Pittsfield is ranked 10th in teen pregnancy. Women in the Berkshires made 24 percent less than men and there are 28 percent more restraining orders than the rest of the state. And Western Massachusetts has the highest poverty rate in the state.
Poverty, violence against women, and social and emotional support are three particular areas in which the commission is focusing its attention. Chairwoman Gwendolyn VanSant says there is legislation that sits dormant and bills that should be written that can help.
“It is up to groups like this to give legislation legs,” VanSant said.
Their advocacy could give Farley-Bouvier more to take with her to Beacon Hill when she fights for two pieces of legislation she filed to combat sexual assault. One bill will ensure a bill of rights for victims of sexual assault.
“There are basic kind of things,” Farley-Bouvier said. “So many people do not report the crime because of how they are treated afterward.”
The other will treat sexual assault on college campuses through the prism of Title IX provisions. She added she also filed a bill that would raise the minimum wage for those who work in tip-based industries, such as waitresses.
Downing said he is helping to tackle the poverty issues. He filed a bill to raise the earned income tax credit.
“We just have to come up with a way to pay for it. And, I’ve got it,” Downing said.
Downing proposes freezing the income tax at 5.15 percent. The rate just decreased when revenues hit a benchmark; it is expected to decrease again.
Downing is suggesting to freezing it from falling any further and taking some of the revenue that would have been lost and putting it into the earned-income tax program.
Mark understands the poverty issues from growing up poor. The way he climbed out of poverty was through education and now he has filed a massive bill aimed to reduce the costs associated with going to college.
“I was poor. When I was a kid we didn’t have a water heater when it broke and for three months we couldn’t get it fixed,” Mark said.
His wife is paying some $750 a month in student loans, which is more than his mortgage. So Mark has filed an omnibus bill that improves savings plans, increases financial literacy, provides additional tax credits for college students, and offers incentives for employers to help with the cost.
The commission is not just advocating on behalf of women. The commission is also convener and Friday’s meeting is one way organizations can met and share what they are working on. Members of the Berkshire United Way spoke of literacy programs and Co-Act spoke about homelessness, among the organizations focused on tackling issues for women and families.
The group tries to connect all of the disparate programs into a collaborative effort to improve the lives of women in the county.
“We want to think big picture,” said Commissioner Mary Berle.