By Judy Salerno
NATICK – For decades, MetroWest has been synonymous with success. The region has a hard-earned and well-deserved reputation as a premier place for well-paying jobs, quality education, and robust civic engagement. It’s a place where people want to live, work, and play.
But the COVID-19 pandemic, with its unexpected upheaval and sweeping disruptions to daily life, has laid bare a previously overlooked but now incontrovertible fact: For the 700,000 residents who live in MetroWest, wealth and prosperity are not uniform or universal.
Long before the outbreak began, a growing number of our neighbors were already encountering complex challenges that were not immediately apparent or often associated with our 33 cities and towns: rapidly changing demographics, surging income inequality, severe financial difficulties and persistent educational disparities, among others.
These hardships were slowly becoming more tangible and visible, but many of us were unable to define why they existed or what could and should be done to alleviate them.
In January, just ten days before the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Massachusetts, that anecdotal evidence was supported by concrete information.
Impact MetroWest, an interactive website launched by the Foundation for MetroWest, provided the first comprehensive portrait of our region, detailing the changing currents coursing through our communities.
The data-driven project illuminated many strengths, but also highlighted the obstacles more and more of our neighbors are being forced to overcome.
Nearly one in four MetroWest residents speaks a language other than English at home. The growth in the number of people age 60 or older is far outpacing all other age groups.
The wealthiest 20 percent of households make five times more than the poorest 20 percent. Nearly one in ten MetroWest residents, and one in ten children, now live in poverty. The number of homeless persons has jumped 30 percent in the last decade.
Outcomes for minority students lag significantly behind their peers. Only one in three economically disadvantaged students passed their third-grade reading tests.
The overarching conclusion was clear: within MetroWest’s land of plenty, many are struggling to prosper.
The COVID-19 outbreak and associated social distancing measures and closures have exacerbated those existing hardships, stretching budgets to the breaking point for the most vulnerable MetroWest residents. Schools have closed and workers have been laid off, leaving social safety nets creaking under the weight of unprecedented demand for additional support and resources.
What Impact MetroWest revealed, the COVID-19 outbreak has made unmistakable: We must collectively acknowledge that significant challenges do, in fact, exist in a region more often noted for its strengths than its shortcomings.
Homelessness, income inequality, and child poverty are problems present not just in faraway places, but in our own back yard. We must therefore consider whether our noble philanthropic efforts to combat these scourges elsewhere might make a larger impact here at home, for the MetroWest family struggling right down the street – and especially now, as many of those families are pushed to the brink.
Once we’ve accepted that our neighbors need our support, we must determine what that support entails. The current crisis should galvanize everyone who calls MetroWest home to seek short and long-term solutions, which will require close collaboration between the business, nonprofit and philanthropic communities.
Embarking on a common search for strategies to combat them is a necessity, as these challenges are as urgent as they are complex. Inaction means we could no longer guarantee that MetroWest remains the welcoming place it has always been, with support and resources available for anyone who needs them, regardless of age, means or background.
In response to COVID-19, the Foundation has created the MetroWest Emergency Relief Fund to help relieve the most immediate hardships. But for many MetroWest residents, struggles with food insecurity, housing instability and financial strain extend well beyond times of crisis. It is critical to support the community organizations working every day to ease those burdens, both during this outbreak and after it subsides.
We don’t yet have all the answers to MetroWest’s challenges, and it will likely take years to fully develop and implement them. But all of us have the ability – right now – to support the groups working to soften the current pandemic’s blow and improve our neighbors’ future quality of life.
Judy Salerno is the Executive Director of the Foundation for MetroWest, the only community foundation serving the 33 cities and towns of MetroWest, encompassing 700,000 residents from Westborough to Waltham and Acton to Walpole. To learn more, please visit www.foundationmw.org.