Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation serves a geographic area that includes all of Berkshire County, Massachusetts; the northwest part of Litchfield County, Connecticut; the northeast portion of Dutchess County, New York; and all of Columbia County, New York. Though three states and four counties converge to form the Berkshire Taconic region, it has a shared way of life. Residents regularly cross state and county borders to access jobs, services, and educational and recreational opportunities.
The area’s natural beauty and small-town character are among its primary attractions, drawing full- and part-time residents and growing numbers of visitors and transplants. Preserving the landscape and heritage of our historic towns remains a high priority. A long and rich agricultural history is reflected today in economic opportunities in sustainable agriculture and food production. Tourism and creative industries have been helping to boost local economies, although quit rates and job openings spiked in these sectors during the pandemic. Graduation rates have been increasing and the population of professionals with a post-graduate degree is greater here than in the nation overall.
These strengths are tempered by growing challenges, many exacerbated by the pandemic. The region has experienced an overall decline in population, with school enrollments shrinking as the share of seniors increases. Attracting large employers offering professional jobs and living wages is a persistent problem. Long before COVID-19 and current economic uncertainty, wages were not keeping up with inflation, affordable housing was a major concern and poverty rates were rising –with disproportionate impacts on Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities. The opioid crisis that has gripped the nation has affected many families here. Attracting private infrastructure investments in broadband, transportation and other essential services remains a significant challenge.
Effects from the pandemic will continue to reverberate, in some cases magnifying and accelerating long-term trends that underlie the five themes presented here – all of which informs our thinking as a community foundation while shaping the future of our region.
Jobs & the Economy
Our area has long been known as a center for creativity and innovation, with world-class cultural, natural and agricultural resources. As the economic base continues to shift, the need for high-quality jobs that pay at least a living wage remains a primary concern for residents of all ages, incomes and education levels. Sectors that have shown potential for growth, such as creative industries, entrepreneurship, advanced manufacturing, and food- and agriculture-related industries, have bounced back as the economy reopened and may hold promise for attracting and sustaining vibrant local communities.
- Job growth in the region has been weaker than the U.S. average and hasn’t offset job losses from previous decades of substantial economic restructuring. After further job losses due to the pandemic, federal and state stimulus flows have caused employment and productivity to pick up in many sectors. But there are still numerous challenges facing the business community, including the workforce crisis, shortages of goods and rising prices.
- Industries with higher than average concentrations of employment here include arts, entertainment and recreation; educational services; crop and animal production; health care and social assistance; construction; retail trade; and accommodation and food services. The region also has high levels of self-employment.
- Tourism directly supports significant numbers of jobs within the four counties, but many pay lower wages and parts of the sector have suffered during the pandemic. For instance, the quit rate among accommodation and food services workers in Berkshire County at one point was more than double the national average. Meanwhile, the steady increase in housing units devoted to seasonal or recreational use reflects the growing influence of tourism in the region. At the same time, business growth has been hampered by a lack of workforce housing for year-round workers.
- The abundant cultural activities and organizations in the region are a major draw for tourists and residents alike. They also play a crucial role in the economy. The number of arts- and culture-focused nonprofits of all sizes—some 200 in total by one estimate—is remarkable considering the relatively small population. The mix of arts-related businesses and self-employed workers and artists also form a powerful engine for the creative economy.
- Farming contributes to local economies and shapes regional identity. While the amount of land dedicated to agriculture has declined over time, the number of jobs in food industries—production, processing, distribution, restaurants and retail—has been growing. We have seen a rise, too, in the number of small independent food cooperatives, environmental sustainability businesses, and cannabis growers and dispensaries.
Read about our investments in inclusive entrepreneurship and arts and creativity.
For decades prior to the pandemic, our region has faced steady population loss, concentrated among young adults and working-age families. At the same time, the share of older adults has risen, as has the number of minority and foreign-born residents. Population loss has presented serious ramifications for the tax base, workforce and viability of schools. The growing number of seniors aging in place brings more community assets such as volunteers and mentors for youth, but also more complex health and service needs, with potentially fewer young people to help meet them. All of these demographic trends have accelerated in recent years. While some municipalities have experienced bumps of net migration during the pandemic due to people moving here to escape large cities, it is not fully known whether these newcomers will domicile here or stay longer term.
- Recent estimates show that our region has been losing twice as many people than it gains.
- The concentration of people over 65 is higher in the region than in each of our three states (New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut) and the U.S. overall.
- The region overall remains predominantly white and non-Hispanic, but that is slowly changing. A clear trend in this increasing diversity is a rising Hispanic population, and the number of foreign-born residents has increased substantially over time.
Read about area fund grants programs helping newly arrived neighbors and seniors.
Youth & The Future Workforce
Vital to the region’s future, young people and the workforce are crucially intertwined. While community colleges and vocational schools in particular are building skills and career pathways for students, these students have struggled financially and some have delayed their education plans during the pandemic due to uncertainty and family demands. With historic patterns such as youth leaving the region and employers facing a shortage of skilled workers expected to persist, supporting younger residents—in order to sustain the workforce, schools, services and overall population—is an urgent priority.
- Declining enrollment has long been a trend in rural schools around the U.S. Here in the region’s public school districts, the story is no different and the pandemic appears not to have an effect on continuing drops in enrollment.
- With limited financial resources and pandemic pressures such as learning loss and increased mental health challenges, schools are likely to continue struggling to meet the needs of a growing portion of students for whom English is not a first language—particularly in Dutchess County.
- A positive trend is increasing high school graduation rates, which have been above the national average and have generally held steady or in some cases increased during the pandemic.
- One in five graduates from a Berkshire County high school plans to go to work, a rate that is higher than the state and has more than doubled over the last ten years.
- The region has a somewhat higher than average share of highly educated professionals (those with a post-graduate degree.) It also has a larger working-class population. This mix of education levels has implications for current and future employers.
- Along with weaker job growth and a lack of higher paying jobs, the shortage of skilled workers has employers struggling to fill openings, especially during the pandemic. Demographic shifts, including the aging of the workforce and out-migration of youth, are shrinking the pool of working age adults. Meanwhile, attracting skilled workers—through successful schools, affordable housing and livable communities—has posed an ongoing challenge.
- The region’s more educated residents are getting paid substantially less than their counterparts nationally.
- A national epidemic and public health crisis, opioid addiction has been especially devastating in the Northeast. Drug overdose deaths have increased substantially since 2000 in each of the region’s four counties and ticked back upward recently.
Read about our support for young people around the region, including school-to-work programs.
A defining challenge of our time is more and more evident right here in our communities: rising income inequality and persistent racial economic gaps, made even more stark during the pandemic. Poverty has been rising at the same time that the number of affluent part-time residents has increased. The region has been losing working-class and middle-class families, full-time residents who are leaving in search of higher-paying job opportunities elsewhere. For people of color, especially the Black population, income is falling further behind that of the white population. Furthermore, poverty rates, educational attainment and homeownership show disparities between Black and White populations.
- While most towns in our region have median household incomes that exceed the U.S. median, incomes have not kept pace with inflation in parts of the region, so many workers are earning less today than they did in 2000. This has only worsened as the inflation rate has reached a 40-year high.
- While one in two white households make over $75,000 per year in Berkshire County, only one in four Black households meets that threshold. Moreover, the Black population has seen a decrease in income over the last decade.
- Overall, the region has a slightly lower than average poverty rate, but poverty has increased in the region since 2000. In a handful of areas, as many as one in five residents is living in poverty. Two census tracts, in the cities of Hudson and Pittsfield, face concentrated persistent poverty, meaning 20% or more of the population has lived in poverty for three decades. One bright spot is that the percentage of people in poverty in Berkshire County overall has decreased over the last five years.
- The percentage of homeowners is relatively high and increasing, yet the number of properties used as second homes is growing. Housing inventories and available units are at historic lows while median prices have soared, worsening the affordability crisis for renters and lower-income buyers. In fact, in Berkshire County, almost half of all renters spend more than 30% of their income on housing (30% is the threshold for being housing burdened).
- Here in a richly agricultural region, a significant portion of the population remains food insecure. Across the country and here at home, households with children are more likely than others to be food insecure, and the number of food insecure seniors is expected to grow significantly in the next decade.
We have a regional network of funds to support neighbors in crisis and those experiencing food insecurity.
Assets & Infrastructure
Natural beauty and tight-knit towns create a strong sense of place, but with small and dispersed populations, infrastructure development is often challenging. Traditional services like transportation and essential technology for broadband and cell phones are significantly underdeveloped. These limitations can make daily life difficult for residents and businesses, and can slow in-migration and blunt growth. Following passage of the federal infrastructure bill, states and localities are identifying and executing new projects on the ground that hold promise for closing persistent gaps for rural communities.
- Conservation and rural beautification are long established traditions in the region. As a result, significant portions of the landscape are off limits to developers. But much land that was historically forest or farmland was converted for residential development in the last half-century. Natural areas and agricultural lands face continuing threats.
- The digital divide – which hinders social interaction and economic development – affects our region, virtually all of which lacks access to broadband at the Federal Communications Commission’s speed benchmark.
- Efforts to expand public transit access are mostly stalled in each of our states, leaving gaps in transport for the elderly and disabled, and for employees and community college students who do not own cars. Planning efforts assume a high level of car dependency for the foreseeable future.
- Many individual towns have developed comprehensive master plans, long-term visions or economic development strategies that focus in part on revitalizing town centers or downtowns. Others have local economic development entities and chambers of commerce with roadmaps for attracting and retaining small businesses in downtowns.