Research News

Optimism Continues among Local Employers

By Jordan Weinstein   |   Tuesday, March 6, 2012
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Mar. 6, 2012

BOSTON — Bay State employers appear to be gaining more confidence in the economy. Associated Industries of Massachusetts reported on Tuesday that its monthly business confidence index rose by more than two points in February to 54.9, the highest reading in nearly a year and the fourth straight month that the index gained ground.
 
The index works on a scale of 100. A reading above 50 indicates that businesses are more optimistic than pessimistic about the direction of the economy.

Raymond Torto, chairman of AIM’s board of economic advisors, said the rating demonstrated "improving health — not good health, but improving health. And that’s what we’re settling for nowadays.”

While most employers surveyed judged overall business conditions as "average," they felt more positive about the state's business climate than the national economy and were less worried about the prospect of another recession.

However, Torto thought world events might erode that optimism.
 
“This week alone we’ve had conversations about the price of oil and Iran, which might affect this number for the next month,” he said.

> >  Read the complete report.

Two Studies Find Growing Income Inequality In Region

By WGBH News   |   Tuesday, December 13, 2011
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Dec. 14, 2011

occupy boston robin hood was right

Protesters with the Occupy Boston movement, like this man, have brought the issue of income inequality to the fore. (Phillip Martin/WGBH)

 
BOSTON — Not one but two new reports from Massachusetts think tanks confirm that Occupy Boston's chief grievance — growing income inequality — is a growing problem in the region.

A very different 30 years
 
Despite the state's technology, medical and educational centers, incomes are now distributed less equitably in greater Boston than in 85 percent of the metro areas in the U.S., Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) executive director Marc Draisin said on “The Emily Rooney Show” on Dec. 13. And the gulf between the haves and have-nots is growing wider.


Marc Draisin talks about the MAPC study

“In 1979, a person in the top 20 percent earned about 6 or 7 times what a person in the bottom 20 percent earned. Today, they earn about 10 times as much,” Draisin said. “The bottom 80 percent, their income in inflation-adjusted dollars has remained about the same — in some cases even gone down. The top 20 percent, they’ve had a great 30 years! Their incomes have been going up and up.”
 
The poorest fifth of the region’s population currently earns a median income of roughly $20,000 while the richest fifth earn about $212,000 per year, according to the MAPC report.

The last, lost decade

The MassINC report, released on Dec. 14, focuses on the last 10 years, which it calls a "lost decade."


Ben Forman discusses the MassINC study

That report also found rising income inequality, coupled with growing underemployment. That, MassINC research director Ben Forman told WGBH News' Jordan Weinstein, is of particular concern.

"A lot of people with college degrees aren't in jobs that require college degrees," Forman said. Overall, about one in four workers in Massachusetts is un- or underemployed. That's in spite of the fact that academic achievement keeps rising, a paradox Forman called "stunning."

"We have the nation's most educated workforce," Forman said — for instance, the number of people in the state with master's degrees doubled in the last decade — but in that time, "only six states had slower job growth than we had."  

That's led to increasing pessimism in the state about the "American Dream," an issue WGBH News explored this November in its "Where We Live" series.

Some other key findings

- Massachusetts’ poorest families pay more than twice as much of their income on taxes as do the state’s richest families. (MAPC)
- Half the region’s renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. (MAPC)
- The number of employed residents under age 55 has dropped by 12 percent. (MassINC)
- Over one-third of the state's teens (age 16–19) and over one-quarter of young adults (age 20–24) were un- or underemployed in 2010. (MassINC)
 
Further reading

- MAPC report: State of Equity in Greater Boston
- MassINC report: Meeting the Challenges of the Bay State's Lost Decade

Where We Live: Where Next?

By Bob Seay   |   Friday, November 18, 2011
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Nov. 18, 2011

lawrence bridge

People who live in Lawrence and other cities and towns across the Commonwealth are trying to build a bridge from the economic downturn to the bright, successful future of which they dream. (Phillip Martin/WGBH)


BOSTON — In the November installment of our series “Where We Live,” WGBH News reporters have gone to cities and towns around the Commonwealth to share stories of people — from those who have given up on the American Dream to those who have embraced it and managed to survive and even prosper in a bleak economy.
 
But these mostly positive stories have been told against a backdrop of mostly negative economic data derived from the 2010 US Census.
 
The independent think tank MassINC has titled its analysis: “Meeting the Challenges of the Bay State’s Lost Decade.” It tells the tale of a middle class hit hard by the loss of 150,000 jobs since 2000.

What's happening with the American Dream in Mass.?

Ben Forman, research director for MassINC, elaborated on the findings.

WGBH News: Where We Live

shareShare stories from your town



map See more stories of the American Dream in Mass.

“For the first time in decades median household income has declined in Massachusetts by about 6 percent. And median family income — that was just about stagnant over the last decade. That hasn’t happened before,” he said.
 
And the economic effects are evident in how people reported feeling to MassINC researchers.
 
“When we asked people over the last 10 years ‘Has it become easier or more difficult to live the kind of life your family wants to live?’ 54 percent said more difficult. Only 11 percent said easier,” he said. “When we asked, looking ahead, if the next generation will be financially better off or worse off, 48 percent said worse off. Only 17 percent said better off.”
 
Forman said that while we’ve been losing middle-income jobs it’s been difficult to attract new businesses here that have those jobs.

Let's talk about it: Listen to Forman's extended conversation with Bob Seay. How is the most educated state still losing jobs? (46 mins. Download the mp3.)

The state’s high cost of living, he said, “makes it very difficult for businesses to locate here, especially businesses that are employing middle-income workers, because middle-income workers feel those costs most intensely — and so they’d rather be in a place like North Carolina or Arizona or somewhere where the costs are lower.”

This recession has hit younger people very hard, especially college graduates, Forman said: “Over the last decade we created about 240,000 jobs for people over age 55 and we lost about 220,000 jobs for people between ages 25 and 44.”
 
Making the situation worse for recent graduates is the fact that Massachusetts has a grayer-than-average workforce. Since 2000 there has been a 44 percent increase in the number of workers age 55 and older, with many hanging onto their jobs because of concerns about their own financial futures.
 
But what about our many high-tech and life sciences firms — aren’t they creating jobs? Not enough, Forman said.
 
“We gained jobs and outperform the country in life sciences and some small niche sectors but those certainly aren’t enough to replace the middle-income, middle class jobs that we’ve been losing,” he said. “The industries we’re been creating here, often there’s three people in the world who can do the job the company is looking for. So no matter how hard we try, we’re not always going to fill those [jobs] with homegrown talent.”
 
Forman said the challenge is not so much incubating companies but keeping them here after they hatch, because often what they make can be produced anywhere and by a much smaller workforce than the industries of old.
 
Possibilities and pitfalls

MassINC researchers said things we could do to improve the situation include boosting tax credits for lower-income earners to help them meet the high cost of living and promoting the development of affordable housing especially in urban areas.
 
And, Forman said, there are some things we should not do, such as abandoning the state’s commitment to K-12 education or not maintaining our transportation infrastructure

MassINC

“The reason those companies are going to be successful is because of the MBTA and because they can get to Kendall Square, the innovation district and the Seaport, to the new Northpoint area that’s being developed or the new life sciences center that Harvard is going to build in Allston,” he said. “If we let the MBTA fail it would be a huge economic development loss for us. We have the most talented people on earth and they get treated like cattle every day on their way to work. And I think there we have to ask ourselves: Do we want to lose those people? Where are they going to go?”
 
Although many think Massachusetts is well poised, with its intellectual capital, to take advantage of any economic recovery, the road to prosperity is fraught with danger — including the expected cuts in federal spending on defense and health that would be felt here more severely than anywhere else. Experts have also been concerned about the economic health of the countries that Massachusetts is counting on to buy our high-tech products and technology.
 
So is there hope?
 
“I think anyone would be crazy to doubt America and Massachusetts in particular,” Forman said. “Sometimes it takes us a while but we figure it out.”
 
The word “reinvention” is heard throughout the WGBH News “Where We Live” series. It’s something we New Englanders are proud of: our ingenuity and ability to adapt and change course. Those talents have led to some success during this recession — and they will be needed to meet the challenges ahead.

Luxury Housing And The Rental Crisis

By Danielle Dreilinger   |   Monday, October 31, 2011
0 Comments   0 comments.

Oct. 31, 2011

south boston apartments

This Boston apartment building is pretty — but can you afford to live there? (l.e.o./Flickr)

 
BOSTON — It's harder than ever to find an affordable place to live in greater Boston — and a research institute chalks it up partly to growing income inequality.

The Dukakis Center’s ninth annual Greater Boston Housing Report Card, released October 25, confirmed what many locals already thought: Rents are the highest they’ve ever been. The average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the Boston area in 2010 was $1,583. 
 
It’s classic supply and demand, study co-author Barry Bluestone of Northeastern University said in an interview. The number of renters has gone up: graduate students flocked to the area, many young people are continuing to rent instead of buying and foreclosed owners are back in the rental market.
 
At the same time, housing production has slowed to a crawl. According to the report, greater Boston has been on a six-year path toward ever-lower production levels. If rates continue, developers will pull permits for fewer than 4,500 new units of housing in 2011. That would be the lowest number in two decades.

Barry Bluestone talks about the Greater Boston Housing Report Card.


Compounding the affordability issue, the limited housing growth that does exist has occurred “primarily among luxury units,” Bluestone said.

Anyone who’s checked the real estate ads has seen plentiful loft-style condos, brand-new kitchens, cathedral ceilings and other fancy features — for a premium. In 2010 this reporter walked into a house for sale to see the owner installing a new marble kitchen countertop in the hopes, he said, that it would increase the sale price.
 
Somerville’s Maxwell’s Green development, for instance, is creating 184 new rental apartments in a complex that will include a yoga studio, theater room, wireless workspace and a club suite with chef’s kitchen. In a January 2011 presentation, the developer said rents would start at $1500 for a studio.
 
Bluestone attributed the trend towards high-end housing to “the dramatic increase in income and wealth inequality.” He pointed to a new Congressional Budget Office report that found the upper economic echelons controlled a larger share of the country’s wealth in 2007 than in 1979.
 
In the greater Boston housing world, that means the wealthy are “about the only folks who have the wherewithal to consume, and they’re buying bigger units, more luxurious units with more amenities, “ Bluestone said. “And developers of course are responding to that demand.”
 
To help stabilize rental prices, the Northeastern researchers recommend creating multi-unit housing “villages” for graduate students and turning bank-owned foreclosed units into rental housing, among other suggestions. 

Check out the Greater Boston Housing Report Card buzz on social media.

Boston Website Helps Users Find Government Docs — Legally

By B. John Campbell   |   Monday, January 3, 2011
0 Comments   0 comments.

Jan. 3, 2010

A screen shot from Muckrock's homepage.

SOMERVILLE — Wikileaks has dominated news headlines by releasing thousands of confidential government documents online. In Massachusetts, a new website is going about government transparency in an entirely different way. It's helping users cut through bureaucratic labyrinths to obtain government documents legally through the Freedom of Information Act.

Inside a third-floor apartment in Somerville, Michael Morisy types away at his dinning room table. There are vacation photos on his walls, journalism books on some shelves and a sparsely decorated Christmas tree. All in all, it's a rather innocuous place to engage the government for increased transparency.
 
But that's exactly what Morisy is doing. The Cornell graduate is the co-founder of Muckrock, a website that makes it easy to file requests under the Freedom of Information act.
 
“Muckrock comes from the old term Muckraker which is the old, sort of derivative term for an investigative journalist who is down in the muck digging up stories," Morisy said. "And that's kind of where we see ourselves."

Morisy says his organization doesn't have its own specific agenda. "But we are digging though the muck. We are digging through the raw government data. And we're letting other people do the same thing,” Morisy said.

Muckrock uses a series of questions to help users quickly locate agencies where specific government documents are found. Once the user finds what they want, they click “submit” and Muckrock automatically drafts a letter for the request. This letter gets sent to the government agency. And when the government completes the request, the documents are sent to the user via email, and are later posted on Muckrock’s homepage.

That means the filing process takes only a few minutes of a user's time when, normally, the process of filing a FOIA request takes hours. “Really, we're trying to make the process easier and open to everyone. We work with journalists. We work with think tanks. We work with researchers. We work with activists who are trying to get information about their communities," Morisy said.

Unlike Wikileaks, which many believe is trying to push a radical political agenda, Muckrock, says Morisy, transcends politics.  

"We have members of the Tea Party using our site. We have members of socialist groups using our site," Morisy said. "People have a common base where we can start discussions."

That, says Morisy, is where he thinks Muckrock's value lies. "You are entitled to your own opinions but you are not entitled to your own facts. And I think we've created a great place to come and see those facts, so you can make those opinions.”

Justin Ellis, assistant editor at Harvard's Nieman Journalism Lab, says Muckrock can be a valuable journalistic tool because Freedom of Information Act requests are complicated and time-consuming.

"You have to track the steps and make sure they find the right agencies. And something like this could be useful because it allows journalists to a take a few steps, make the requests, and be able to work on other things while this is being done… sorta on a parallel track through Muckrock,” Ellis said.

"At a time where we are seeing some contraction and reduction in the size of newsrooms and some journalism organizations, speaking mostly of newspapers, this is something that could be real time saver and a helpful tool to newsrooms," Ellis said.

To date, Muckrock has filed 289 FOIA requests. Michael Morisy estimates that about 80% of those requests are for federal documents. And while the government has completed only 35 of the requests, more than 4,708 pages of documents have been made available.

Currently, Muckrock provides both national and a limited number of document requests for specific communities in Massachusetts.

Study: When Preachers No Longer Believe

Wednesday, December 29, 2010
2 Comments   2 comments.

Dec. 29, 2010

BOSTON -- The Tufts University philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett wasn’t surprised when, during research for a book, he encountered “secret non-believers”—outwardly religious people who don’t believe in the creed of their own churches.
 
But he was stunned when some of those non-believers turned out to be priests themselves.

Prof. Daniel Dennett at a conference in Gemany in 2008. (Wikimedia Commons)

“They’re good people who good stuck in this awful trap,” Dennett said. “We found some that were really suffering.”
 
Dennett anonymously interviewed five active pastors who said they no longer believed the tenets of their church, but he thinks there are many more pastors like them. Now, he’s gearing up for a second, larger study on the issue.
 
For the most part, Dennett found, the non-believing ministers he knew simply didn’t learn early enough that something didn’t feel right about their work. “They’re basically very good people. They went into the clergy because, given their background, how they were raised, they wanted to do good in this world and this is the best path they could see,” Dennett told WGBH’s Emily Rooney. “Their first mistake is they should have gotten out in seminary, when the getting was good. Their second mistake was staying around and thinking, well, I’ll live with this, I can deal with this.”
 
Those priests, he said, are forced into moral, social and professional isolation. “They have to teach the doctrines of the church, and if you no longer believe them, you’ve got a moral problem.”
 
One minister still hasn’t told his very devout wife because he worries she would be devastated by the news. “These people lead very lonely lives, in some cases,” Dennett said.
 
Dennett wants to learn more about how these priests handle their situation. He knows some work out their own private understanding with a God. “They say, ‘I am not an atheist, I believe in God, but I believe in the God that I believe in.’ That’s very much a private God because they can’t talk about that God from the pulpit.”
 
He also wants to learn more about the scale of the issue. “We know there’s Catholics, we know there’s Mormons, we know there’s Jewish rabbis,” Dennett said, “but we have no idea yet how big this phenomenon is.”
 
But an aspect of his first study suggests it’s not uncommon. “Nobody says well, it’s a tiny tiny fraction,” Dennett said. ““Nobody denies that this phenomenon exists, not a single one of our critics has suggested that we are making this up.”
 
 Likewise, he said, no one criticized Dennett and his team for looking into the issue.  They were critical of people admitting it. “It was like magicians getting angry with magicians for telling how a trick is done,” Dennett said.

About the Authors
Jordan Weinstein Jordan Weinstein
Jordan Weinstein is a news anchor for NPR's All Things Considered on WGBH, 89.7 FM in Boston.
WGBH News
The WGBH News team comprises the WGBH radio newsroom, The Callie Crossley Show, The Emily Rooney Show and WGBH Channel 2 reporters and producers from Greater Boston and Basic Black. 
Bob Seay Bob Seay
Bob Seay is the host of NPR's Morning Edition on 89.7FM WGBH Radio. He got his start in radio during college at WMUH, got involved with WGBH TV while in graduate school at Boston University and formerly hosted ME at WRNI in Rhode Island.
Danielle Dreilinger Danielle Dreilinger
Danielle Dreilinger is an author and news producer for WGBH.org.



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