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In The Arena

In the Arena: He’s walked in those shoes

I’m guessing not too many people in public life today ever had to take a cold shower in the middle of winter for economic reasons.

But, then again, not many public servants possess the working-class perspective 2nd Berkshire Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, brings to Beacon Hill every day.

“When I was a kid, my Dad got laid off from his job at a warehouse, and for about five years we really struggled,” Mark said. “One day, our hot water heater broke and we couldn’t buy a new one for about three months, so you either used cold water or boiled it on the stove.”

“That was a tough time,” Mark added. “And it’s one of the reasons programs like these are important to me.”

The desire to raise awareness about the plight of the working poor was one of the things that led Mark and a group of Berkshire County state lawmakers, including Sen. Ben Downing, D-Pittsfield, to take the “SNAP Challenge,” where they agreed to live for a week on the financial equivalent of what a SNAP/EBT recipient receives from the government — $31.50 for an individual and $128 for a family of five.

“We all got together at the beginning of the week and went shopping at the Price Rite in Pittsfield,” Mark said. “We bought enough food for seven days and it was a challenge for sure.”

With his $31.50, Mark snagged some oatmeal, a bag of apples, baked beans, pasta, assorted vegetables, a whole chicken and four pork chops.

“I tried to keep it kind of healthy, but I did buy an individual pizza for 89 cents, and a couple of those Banquet meals — chicken tenders and turkey,” Mark said.

Yummy.

Mark said the most difficult part was finding time to cook, and choosing foods that he could take with him to Boston and to meetings throughout his district.

“I bought enough spaghetti for three nights, but I was never able to cook it because I was always on the road,” Mark said. “And I’m sure there are a lot of people who get these benefits who are working three and four jobs at all kinds of crazy hours who are doing the exact same things.”

On days where he was stuck at the Statehouse, Mark’s menu was about as simple, and grim, as it gets.

“One day, I just brought a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter and had sandwiches,” Mark said. “I actually did that for a couple of days and ate oatmeal in the morning, which was not a big deal because I eat that a lot of anyway.”

Mark says the challenge also a provided an opportunity to alter some perceptions among his colleagues regarding life in rural Massachusetts.

“There are people in Boston who think this is the richest part of the state, but it is the complete opposite,” Mark said. “The fact is that Berkshire, Franklin and Hampden counties are the three poorest counties in Massachusetts.”

Mark says that disconnect was never more apparent than during a recent visit by House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

“We were in Hawley, and one of the speaker’s aides asked where people worked here,” Mark said. “I said ‘who says they work?’ I’m pretty sure this looked like Arkansas to them, but they got the message quick that things aren’t always as they seem.”

Mark says clarifying that perception is especially important as the Legislature considers ways to “reform” the welfare, EBT and SNAP programs.

“That’s been a hot topic — what to do with these programs — and how to make sure people aren’t taking advantage of the system without hurting the people who really need this help,” Mark said.

For some lawmakers, that’s not necessarily the primary concern. Judging from what I have read, seen and heard, there are a lot of elected officials taking part in this debate who are operating under the assumption that people who receive these EBT benefits are just lazy slugs intent on defrauding the system.

But I’m betting a lot of those same representatives have never had to wonder where their next meal was coming from — an experience with which Mark is all too familiar.

“My father worked three and four jobs after he got laid off, and we needed those benefits, but it wasn’t easy,” Mark said. “Being in poverty is embarrassing for people. It was for me. I didn’t want anyone to know about our situation, even though it’s not really anything to be ashamed of.”

“My parents were great people who worked as hard as I’ve seen anyone work, and they didn’t want to be in the situation they were in, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do to feed your family,” Mark said. “There are a lot of people who go to sleep with that reality every day.”

But I’ll bet they’ll sleep just a little bit better knowing one of their own is watching their backs.

Chris Collins is the Franklin County News Bureau Chief for WHAI, WPVQ and WHMP Radio. He is a former staff reporter for The Recorder, and is a Greenfield native.

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