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Sen. Hinds Discusses Post-Pandemic Massachusetts Resiliency Hearings

State Senator Adam Hinds holds a microphone at an outdoor event.
Becki Joppru Connolly
State Senator Adam Hinds.

State Senator Adam Hinds is the chair of the Senate Committee on Reimagining Massachusetts Post-Pandemic Resiliency. The body has already held two hearings this spring on topics ranging from equity gaps in healthcare data reporting to the cost of the digital divide in the state. More hearings are coming, and a report is expected from the committee by the fall. Hinds, a Western Massachusetts Democrat, spoke with WAMC about what he’s gathered so far from the process, and how the state can effectively respond to the revelations the hearings have uncovered.

HINDS: Well, we've been designing this committee process so that we can highlight specific issues and policy options for, essentially for immediate action. And we've really heard loud and clearly that, during the first hearing, that the digital divide is going to be central to creating an equitable recovery. And namely, as we're moving towards increased reliance on the internet for telemedicine, for remote work in some sectors, for learning and down the line, we've seen that the digital divide is not just a rural issue, and I have to confess that I was guilty of viewing it as such. We heard that 21% of Massachusetts residents do not have access to a hardwired internet wire in their home. And, you know, maybe they're getting it through cell phones or otherwise. And of those 21%, 97% are in our downtowns in urban areas. And so, it's not an infrastructure issue as much as we framed it as such. It's a poverty issue often. And so that was a big one. In our second hearing, the real kind of concentration of discussion was around childcare, and then maybe I would add to that to kind of early college as an effective tool. And childcare obviously, you know, it's so central to many of the alarming challenges that we confront, including how do we have an equitable recovery? How do we recover from and confront and insulate ourselves from a repeat of the current exit from the workforce by women? How do we address the flaws in our care economy, including, you know, the pay for workers in childcare, the affordability of childcare? You know, and all this is happening while we're watching real time shifts in our economy, including increased adoption of remote work. And so do we have a childcare system that's ready for that? And so that was that was a real focus of the conversation.

In the first hearing, I was struck by the conversation about equity and medical data reporting from Dr. Jarvis Chan from Harvard. There was a lot of conversation about how incredibly far behind reporting around people of color in Massachusetts are, not just the beginning of a pandemic, but even during the vaccination rollout, there's still massive discrepancies. From your vantage point as a legislator, what are actual policies that can be implemented around medical reporting in advance of another disaster, and just to catch up to exactly how wide the gap is in care in the state already?

Well, and thank you for your reporting on that, because it really was, it was striking to understand that if you want health equity and equitable outcomes, you need health data. And we've really been struck by the reality is that we don't. And so the implications were stark, that we've been operating under this belief that Black residents were twice more likely to die of COVID. When you correct for age and other factors, it's actually closer to three times more likely. And so I think what we're learning is, we really need to have a clear lens, by geography, by neighborhood, by community, by race, by income. And as you heard in the previous hearing, education matters significantly. And so clearly, that will be one of our outcomes, is putting in place stronger, more robust and more granular data.

There were larger existential themes in that first hearing regarding the digital divide. The report from the Pew Research Center suggested that tech experts have a somewhat pessimistic view of life, and one exacerbated by the increasing gap in that digital divide. What was your response to hearing that almost half of the 900-plus experts interviewed seem to think that life could actually be a lot worse for folks by 2025?

My take away from that exchange and from others has been that this moment calls for serious look at structural change, and incremental shifts and band aids and kind of chipping away at the edges of policy is not what we need. We really need a rethink of our systems. We, you know, as the committee, the name of the committee suggests, we need to rethink our decisions that have not resulted in equal opportunity, systems that have not insured health equity. They've not done right by our kids, our students and our workers. And so, it's that, that kind of leads to the opportunities that we confront here and that we have, and that we have a legislature and a government now that is committed to going all in on, you know, fixing our childcare system, moving towards universal childcare, and the like. That really starts to shift and say, look, we've learned from the Great Recession and the downturns as one example that the recovery will not be equal in terms of length. And we saw as one example Black women's employment rates did not actually return to their pre-Great Recession levels until 2018. And that's a very different experience from others in the Commonwealth. And so we need to be strategic and deliberate in our recovery strategies as a result.

From your vantage point, are there legislative tools or varieties of laws that can be passed to sort of protect folks in that position who we know from experience might be more susceptible to being left behind in this most recent recovery effort?

Yeah. And that's really the strategy of this group and our committee, and so, really dissecting each of our sectors and institutions and systems. In childcare, that means, look, we need to really look at how we're funding our childcare so that we're not in a situation where it, people pay so much for childcare it's unaffordable, and yet the childcare workers, which are pretty heavily women and women of color, are getting paid less, not getting paid enough. And so that's an area of work that we'll certainly be highlighting in recommendation. Another that came out of yesterday is, you know, Black and Latino students are earning post-secondary degrees at half the rate of white students right now. And that gap is growing. And so what does that mean about the strategies that we deploy. Early college came out as one that really caught the attention of folks. We have data now in the Commonwealth that shows that it's a way to really ensure folks have affordable routes towards higher education, and more accessibility, higher rates of return and attending a four year institutions when they participate in early college. And so it's those types of strategies that I think we're learning are effective at turning the tide and that's where we need more investment.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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