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Water's Rising For Hartford's Underclass

COMMENTARY by Michele Jacklin
September 14, 2005

As the events in New Orleans have unfolded and Americans have been forced to confront issues of racism and economic injustice, this question is worth pondering: If a monster hurricane bore down on Hartford and a mass evacuation was ordered, who would be left behind?

Contemplating that scenario isn't some idle exercise, although it's certainly hoped that no calamity on the order of Hurricane Katrina will befall Hartford or any other community. But in these dangerous and uncertain times, it seems no catastrophe is beyond the realm of the imaginable.

So who in Hartford would be left, lacking the transportation and wherewithal to leave?

The botched Gulf Coast evacuation may be instructive. Until New Orleans was submerged two weeks ago, that city and Hartford shared an unhappy distinction - large indigent populations that are disproportionately minority. In terms of child poverty, Hartford has the second-highest rate in the country at 41.3 percent. Right behind, until its residents were forced to flee, was New Orleans, where 40.5 percent of the city's kids were poor by federal standards.

Thus, it's fair to extrapolate that those who would most likely be left behind in Hartford would be the sick, the elderly and the young. And because most of them are African American and Latino, the pictures of isolation and abandonment in Connecticut's capital would look strikingly similar to the ones we saw of New Orleans after the hurricane hit and the levees burst.

The racial and economic composition of Hartford's population isn't stop-the-presses news, of course, but the events down South have underscored the urgency of a problem that is too often overlooked or swept under the rug. Obviously, the most effective way to break the cycle of urban poverty and dependency is to create good-paying jobs with benefits. But recent developments on that front are not encouraging.

First came a U.S. Census Bureau report showing that Connecticut's poverty rate is increasing at a pretty good clip, as is the number of residents without health insurance.

Then Connecticut Voices for Children issued its fifth annual State of Working Connecticut Report, which found that many state workers are losing ground. Lastly, top economists at a Connecticut Business & Industry Association forum last week spoke of weak job growth, with most of the losses coming in the higher-wage manufacturing and professional sectors and most of the gains coming in the lower-wage hospitality, retail and leisure sectors.

Together, the one-two punch of rising poverty and stagnant employment could provide fodder for the '06 governor's race. On taking office last year, Gov. M. Jodi Rell said job growth would be a top priority. Thus far, her efforts (whatever they are) have produced negligible results.

"Connecticut's incomplete job recovery and growing wage gaps are threatening the stability of the state's economy and the well-being of thousands of children," concluded Connecticut Voices, a research and advocacy group based in New Haven.

The group noted that the five employment sectors showing the greatest losses in 2004 paid each employee an average of $83,000, compared with $38,181 per job in the five sectors with the highest employment gains. That trend can't continue without serious societal consequences. No less than Connecticut's prized quality of life is at risk.

The same themes sounded by Connecticut Voices were noted by economists and business leaders at Friday's CBIA conference in Hartford. John Patrick, CEO of TD Banknorth Connecticut, described job growth as anemic: "We're adding some jobs but probably not the kind of jobs we want to see added in terms of spurring economic growth."

Experts see an even grimmer future. A survey of Connecticut businesses by Blum Shapiro found that only 25 percent of executives say they expect to expand their workforces in the coming year, down from 33 percent in 2004. In addition, a quarter of the respondents say they have job openings but no plans to fill them because of the state's stifling business climate.

Until Connecticut gets serious about kick-starting its economy, reducing poverty and creating high-wage jobs, Hartford residents will continue to be left behind. Better prepare those lifeboats

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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