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Priorities Crucial If City Aid Dries Up

Tom Condon

February 07, 2010

At a conference on housing 10 days ago, two legislators reminded the crowd that the state has no money. This caused Hartford city councilman Larry Deutsch to stand and say to summarize what was a bit of a ramble that there needs to be money for the cities.

He is right to be concerned.

The state already spends a small fortune on cities and the urban poor, if everything from social services and education to courts and corrections is included. When it finally occurs to the governor and the leaders of the General Assembly that this is not a drill and that there really is no money, the cities could be in trouble. Hartford, in particular.

Those of you who have read the draft city plan of conservation and development know that compared with New Haven, Springfield, Worcester and Providence, Hartford has a significantly higher percentage of adults who have not finished high school, the highest poverty rate for individuals, the lowest median household income and the highest rate of custodial grandparent status.

Here's more, from the Connecticut State Data Center at UConn. Hartford has nearly a third of its population 32.5 percent living below the federal poverty level, $21,460 for a family of four. To eliminate regional difference, poverty is sometimes measured by the number of people living below twice the federal poverty level ($42,920). In Hartford, that would be 56.5 percent of city residents.

No one else is even close; the next in line is New Haven, with 23.8 percent of its people below the poverty line and 44.3 percent below the double line; and Windham, at 22.1 percent and 48.9 percent, respectively.

This is important both morally and economically.

The gap between the haves and have-nots is worse than it has ever been, according to a much-discussed article, "Keeping America's Edge," by Jim Manzi in the current issue of the journal National Affairs (nationalaffairs.com/ publications/detail/keeping-americas-edge).

"Increasingly," he writes, " our country is segregated into high-income groups with a tendency to bourgeois norms, and low-income groups experiencing profound social breakdown."

As a consequence, poor people aren't behaving like middle-class or rich people. For example, he says, nearly 40 percent of all births, and 70 percent of all African-American births, are out of wedlock. This means many kids he says a third of the nation's children are being raised in chaotic circumstances, not (with a few heroic exceptions) getting the values and discipline that families traditionally provide.

This isn't good because the country needs to compete in the global economy, and to do it successfully, most of us have to be on the same page. City residents must not only be able to work, but also endure the inevitable changes that happen in an innovative economy.

Which brings me back to Larry Deutsch's issue. The state is projecting a $6 billion deficit by 2013. Aid to cities and towns will likely be cut. So we need to think about how to invest what money will be left. We should:

Keep pushing to get Hartford kids into better schools. Thanks to Ms. Sheff, Mr. Adamowski and many others, this is the one thing that's beginning to work.

Stop building all the region's low-income housing in Hartford. This is a simple application of the first law of holes when you are in one, stop digging.

From Manzi: Use immigration as a recruiting tool get the skilled workers local industries need, and have them live in the city. This isn't a new idea; Sam Colt did it.

From Malcolm Gladwell's Feb.13, 2006, New Yorker Magazine article "Million-Dollar Murray": Solve the homelessness problem instead of managing it. Get the worst chronic homeless people into supportive housing it's arguably cheaper than what we are doing, and more humane.

Regionalize services (there's a Hartford fire house six blocks from a West Hartford fire house).

Put money into teen pregnancy prevention.

Actually create jobs. Hartford's unemployment rate is 15.1 percent (the state's is 8.9 percent). Add discouraged and underemployed Hartford workers and the number almost doubles, which means about 10,000 people in Hartford are underemployed or unemployed. This is a critical piece of the problem. Families are more likely to stay together if dad is working.

Instead of just providing business loans and "workforce development," why not actually start businesses in the city that employ city residents? I mean partner with private companies or individual businessmen to build things trolley cars, railroad ties, solar panels, whatever.

I think it would be less expensive than the cops, courts, prisons and social services we are paying for now. At least I'd like to run the numbers.

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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