High costs exact a human toll. You can help
Our cost of living made big headlines recently, when a Martha's Vineyard Commission study found that the cost of living on this Island is almost 60 percent higher than the national average; that housing costs are almost double; and that it's 12 percent more expensive to live here than in Boston.
This study quantified something Vineyarders know all too well, but neither the study nor the newspapers explain why this is such a big story. Maybe they assume everyone knows that while our cost of living is way above average, our wages/income are way below - 31 percent below state average. Many people can't make ends meet. Many have left. The complete story, however, is broader than that, has several chapters and needs to be told.
Chapter one is about the human toll. Over 25 percent of Vineyard households earn less than $25,000 a year. People work multiple jobs and still can't make it. The elderly on fixed incomes are squeezed by rising fuel, housing, and medical costs. After paying rent, utilities and heat, approximately one third of Vineyard renters don't have enough left to pay for essentials such as medical insurance or food: 560 people used the food pantry this winter, including over 150 children; 20 percent of people on the Vineyard, including children, don't have health insurance - twice the state average.
The stress of financial problems create anxiety, fear, frustration and depression, compounded by the Vineyard shuffle. It can lead to increased domestic violence, our above-average levels of drug and alcohol abuse and broken homes. It's even harder for single parents. These aren't unemployed or homeless people. These are hard working/professional people we need on this Island: nurses, teachers, law enforcement, and carpenters. Only three percent of year-round Island renters have enough income to afford the lowest priced "starter" homes. Coping with financial problems, working long hours instead of being with the kids, realizing they'll never be able to afford a home is debilitating, and has forced many good people to go find a better quality of life elsewhere. We lose our friends, important members of the community, our middle class.
The high cost of living here is changing the character of the Island. Statistics quantify the problem but don't convey the toll.
The second chapter highlights what we are doing about these problems and introduces us to the heroes of this story. It's about the extraordinary efforts of more than 27 health, housing, and human services agencies on Island.
The hard work and dedication of the people who perform the services and run these organizations, many of them volunteers, and the seasonal residents, celebrities, and benefactors who make generous donations, keep these agencies alive. The majority of Island philanthropy comes from the seasonal members of our community as the year-round population is unable to sustain these institutions on their own. The Harley Riders, the Rotary, churches, the PA Club; community groups add their strength to the effort. Island businesses sponsor events and donate resources. Individual Islanders come together to help a family that lost everything in a fire, or to raise money for a child's critical operation. Our greatest asset is being a community that comes together in times of need.
These heroes provide a safety net for those who live and work here year-round; the fabric, the backbone of the Island. They preserve and protect this place we love. If they can't maintain their lives what kind of place would "The Vineyard" be?
The third chapter is that, unfortunately, our heroes suffer major setbacks. Our charitable organizations are in jeopardy due to Island economics. Costs are growing faster than revenues; some are running big deficits, programs and services suffer or are cut.
There were 1,776 visits to the Food Pantry last year, a 15 percent increase, but with increased demand and fuel costs they had a $6,800 deficit, spending $51,021 while taking in only $44,228.
Dukes County is the second fastest growing county in the state. This growth increases the demand for health and human services at the same time agencies are facing cuts in government funding.
Rent increases have been consistently outpacing household income, so a larger percentage of Vineyarders are struggling to pay for housing and food each year, adding even more demand for human services.
The final chapter of this story has yet to be written. Will the heroes save the Vineyard's character and quality of life? The answer depends on what we all do next.
These agencies need more revenue to provide essential services. Their lifeblood has been the generosity of our seasonal community, but summer fundraising events no longer provide enough to fill a budget gap. The summer community, for example, has been extremely generous to Community Services, but despite the success of their Incredible Dreams Auction, even they need more to meet today's needs.
Some organizations are applying for grants. Some are trying to get more summer donors to participate in annual giving and planned giving campaigns.
They need more help. Give to your favorite Vineyard charities, or go to mvdonors.org to donate online or anonymously. Order a special MV License Plate there; 100 percent of the proceeds go to Vineyard Charities. Give to a General Fund at The Permanent Endowment Fund for Martha's Vineyard or establish your own fund there; contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
No matter what type of Vineyarder you are - seasonal, wash-ashore or native islander - we're all part of this community. In this story, we can all be heroes.
Peter Temple is the executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Donors Collaborative.