Facts & Figures
As the westernmost county in Massachusetts, the Berkshires comprise about 12% of the state’s landmass but only 2% of the population. As such, it is the 2nd most rural county in the state. The 32 towns have a total population of 130,000, which is predominantly white, has a small but growing Hispanic population (3.7% reported, but anecdotally estimated to be much higher), and 3% African-American. The population also tends to be older than statewide: 19% of Berkshire residents are over 65 compared to an average of 14% statewide (US Census). Of those who are 65 and older, 57% are considered poor or low income compared to 42% statewide (MA CHIP).
The majority of jobs in Berkshire County are low-income seasonal service jobs, which depress wages to 29% of the state average and the median household income is 24% lower than the state’s—only $48,907 compared to $64,509. At the same time, the cost of living is 126% above the national norm and the rate of poverty is 24% higher than in the rest of the state. These disparities create an economic pressure that further stresses fragile populations—the elderly, mentally ill, recent immigrants, and minorities. At the same time, the 2008 recession continues to weigh on the region with slow job growth and an unemployment rate that remains stubbornly above the national rate. As a result, a growing number of young workers are leaving the region in search of better job opportunities elsewhere, further contributing to the aging of the county. Many residents are caught between a service-based economy with low wage jobs and a housing market driven by second homeowners; 45% of renters and 37% of homeowners live in homes considered unaffordable. 20% of families with children under age five live in poverty and 34% of children grow up in single parent households—another indicator for poverty (MA CHIP).
The 2012 County Health Rankings ranked the Berkshires near the bottom for measures of mortality, morbidity, healthy behaviors, socio-economic factors, and physical environment. Tragically, Berkshire County has the highest rate of youth suicides and non-fatal self-inflicted injury of all 14 MA counties. That is coupled with a persistently elevated suicide rate in adults compared to elsewhere the state.