In a sold-out event at the Brookline Teen Center last night, BCF Spotlight Event – Understanding Brookline:Poverty, Income Inequality and Our Community, Ashley Mason, a trustee of the Brookline Community Foundation, created a visual to help the audience understand the impact of poverty on Brookline.

“Imagine this whole room represents the approximately 59,000 residents living in Brookline today. Now would the first three rows please stand,” she asked, beckoning to the right side of the audience. “You represent the approximately 7,574 residents living below the poverty line.”

For the next few minutes, Mason asked other rows to sit or stand in order to illustrate the disproportionate number of women and girls who live in poverty, or that, contrary to popular belief, the number of impoverished residents that live in public housing is relatively small.

Speakers from Nadia Chamblin-Foster, the Executive Director of Steps to Success, an in-school program that helps low income students academically succeed, to Linda Olson Pehlke, also a BCF trustee and a lead researcher on Understanding Brookline: A Report on Poverty, addressed the crowd. Murmurs of surprise and dismay rippled through the room while Olson Pehlke reviewed the report’s key findings.

Findings such as that income inequality affects all age groups, but 17.1% of Brookline residents aged 75 or older live in poverty. Or that the cost of living for a single parent raising two children here is close to $75,000—which is more than three times the poverty threshold, and does not include money for savings needed for emergencies, college or retirement. And that the Brookline Emergency Food Pantry has seen an increase of 96.5% since 2009, with 5,207 total visits for food and personal care items.

How To Help

BCF Executive Director Jenny Amory outlined three steps Brookline residents can do to help alleviate the town’s rising levels of poverty and income insecurity:

  • Build Understanding. Share the BCF’s report on poverty with your friends and neighbors. Most Brookline residents are unaware that there’s even a problem.
  • Get Involved. Volunteer with a local organization like the Brookline Emergency Food Pantry or Steps for Success.
  • Make a Difference. Contribute to BCF’s 3-year campaign Brookline Forward. Amory pointed out that this year they will be awarding $350,000 in grants, but they receive three times that number in requests

One of the biggest issues affecting levels of poverty in Brookline is that the cost of living here is so high. 51% of renters spend 30% of their income on rent. But it’s also stagnant wages, the rise in healthcare and child care costs, and state budget cuts of social programs that are making the concept of “upward mobility” a thing of the past.

The evening’s keynote speaker, Barry Bluestone, Sterns Trustee Professor of Political Economy at the Kitty and Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University (also known as a “think and do tank”) reminded the audience that the squeezing of the middle class and the increase in poverty is not a new phenomena. In fact Bluestone co-authored a book,The Great U-turn: Corporate Restructuring and the Polarizing of America in 1988 that explained why the American Dream was in jeopardy.

“Between 1947 and 1973 income doubled for everyone in a single generation,” Bluestone said, “If you could afford to buy a car in 1947, you could buy a second one in 1973. It was the post-war glory days. America was growing more equal.”

In fact, in that 25-year period, the lowest income families saw their income grow the fastest. But Bluestone pointed out that all that started to change in 1973 with the oil embargo. That’s when income began to slip precipitously for all but the richest Americans. On a local level, the city of Boston now ranks #4 in highest income disparity, with only Atlanta, San Francisco and Miami faring worse.

When it comes to solving the issue of income inequality, Bluestone emphasized the importance of putting money into early childhood education. It’s too bad Governor Charlie Baker wasn’t in the audience. According to the Boston Globe, his proposed budget cuts of social programs include grants for Head Start.

For more information about the Brookline Community Foundation and their report on poverty, visit

—By Jennifer Campaniolo