Poverty front and center for next mayor

Behind the hot-button campaign issues that have dominated the New Haven mayoral race lies a nagging fact: more than one-quarter of the city’s residents lives in poverty.

The wealth disparity among inner-city residents looms large among the challenges facing the candidate who emerges victorious from the Nov. 5 election, whether that is democratic-endorsed Toni Harp ARC ’78 or petitioning Independent candidate Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10.

Both Harp and Elicker boast ambitious agendas promising redress for the city’s most salient problems. These include safer streets, higher-quality education accessible to more young people and economic development initiatives that will lure new industry to the city as a means of both refurbishing aged infrastructure and employing an inner-city population that has struggled to stay afloat during a 30-year-long exodus of manufacturing jobs.

But in the 20 years since Mayor John DeStefano Jr. took office in 1993, a billion-dollar school change process and a series of investments in a now-thriving downtown district have done little to reduce the poverty rate, which has changed little over the same two-decade time span. According to data compiled by the local nonprofit DataHaven, the percentage of people in the city of New Haven living in poverty today is virtually the same as it was in 1990, hovering at just over a quarter of the population.

Outside city limits, conditions are better.

Greater New Haven — a geographical region comprising the city as well as inner ring towns such as Hamden and outer ring suburbs such as North Haven, Milford and Bethany — is one of the more affluent areas in the country, ranked by DataHaven 59th among 366 metro regions nationwide.

That wealth creation doesn’t reach all people, said Mark Abraham ’04, the executive director of DataHaven.

“Connecticut as a whole and New Haven, too, have some of the highest-value industries in the U.S.” Abraham said. “But … for [inner-city residents] the picture looks very different.”

Abraham explained that while Connecticut maintains high value-industries in areas like finance, higher education and health care, a large portion of people in the inner city struggle to find jobs in those industries.

Elicker said that has to change, describing poverty as the biggest challenge facing the city. Harp has made a similar message a focal point of her campaign.

“I went across this city, and there were very few places that felt like they got their due,” Harp told a throng of supporters at her primary election night victory party. “Under my leadership, everyone will get their due.”

BY THE NUMBERS

Twenty-six percent of municipal residents live at income levels below the federal poverty level, DataHaven numbers indicate. That is compared to 14.3 percent nationwide and 9.5 percent in Connecticut. The state’s poverty level is the ninth lowest in the country, according to the Census Bureau.

The contrast makes the portrait of the inner-city all the more bleak: In the fall of 2012, 31 percent of people living in New Haven’s low-income neighborhoods said they did not have enough money to purchase food. In addition to being a social and economic crisis in and of itself, Abraham said basic destitution is also at the heart of the city’s other principal ills.

So direct is the link between poverty and education that eligibility for free and reduced-price lunch is a reliable indicator of reading levels in the New Haven Public Schools. A meager 10–25 percent of third-graders with free or reduced lunch are at or above the expected reading level, compared to 40-55 percent among third-graders with full-priced lunch.

“The concentration of poor families in certain areas of the city leads to poor-performing schools,” Abraham said. “These are the social costs of economic segregation.”

High densities of low-income housing in certain areas of the city further contribute to this form of segregation, he said.

John Bradley ’81, executive director of the New Haven-based supportive housing and service organization Liberty Community Services and the associate master of Branford College, said his organization cannot serve a fraction of the individuals who come through its doors. New Haven is alone among cities in Connecticut in appropriating funds — $1 million each year — for shelters and other services for the homeless, a figure that is still dwarfed by the over $10 million in funds that service organizations receive from the state and federal government.

Christian Community Action, a food pantry and nonprofit service organization in the city, operates on a budget of $1.4 million, said the group’s executive director, Bonita Grubbs. She said current funding, which comes mostly from private donations, is not enough to meet the needs of city residents in crisis conditions. The basic inadequacy of existing services makes “long-term strategies to address the trauma resulting from impoverishment” necessary, she said.

New Haven Community Services Administrator Althea Marshall Brooks said the city’s inner-city population continues to struggle under the weight of unemployment and homelessness, despite sustained service initiatives on the part of the city. She said the city’s steep property taxes — in part the result of a shortage of taxable properties — have left a considerable number of residents unable to afford housing within the city, particularly among families and couples in recent years. Especially worrisome, she added, is the accumulation of individuals released from prison who return to the inner city and struggle with collateral issues in housing and employment.

WHAT’S TO BE DONE?

Jobs, housing, education, public health, public transportation, community building — social service providers and researchers interviewed provided a score of different starting points for addressing the underlying problem of poverty.

“I grew up in New Haven; I’ve lived here all my life,” Bradley said. “It’s a constant revelation to me just how poor people in the city are. It’s a huge challenge for any mayor, or any leader of the city. It’s about figuring out how to move the needle on poverty when a lot of that is affected by global and national trends.”

Bradley said city leaders should focus on building job opportunities available in New Haven’s “new economy,” one that no longer provides non-college-educated residents with decent manufacturing jobs.

Both candidates said the city’s poverty problem is not intractable. Elicker said he would start with education, making sure even the city’s poorest youth have the skills to get a job.

“The key to breaking the cycle of poverty is education,” Elicker said. He added that the more time students living in poverty can spend at school, the better their chances of transcending the circumstances into which they are born. Early childhood education would be one of his principal pronged approach, looking to education and job training but also doubling down on economic development.

Students’ family incomes can no longer be an excuse for failing schools, Elicker said, adding that education should be a way out of economic disadvantage rather than another casualty of poverty.

Mental health services in city schools as well as vocational and technical education are also critical to preparing students for the workforce, he said.

Harp said she would take a multi-pronged approach, looking to education and job training but also doubling down on economic development.

“We have to support the small businesses that emanate from the University and the community here in New Haven that can employ residents,” she told the News. “It’s not just about jobs in New Haven but jobs for residents of New Haven.”

The city should do a better job of branding itself by marketing its unique strengths as a mid-sized city on the waterfront with world-class educational institutions in order to attract more business, Harp said.

Bradley said that means capitalizing on the city’s strengths and replicating successful ventures of the past.

“We want to look to people who have some connection to New Haven and are looking for the intellectual capacity that resides here,” Bradley said. “That’s what our unique feature is, and it’s where we’re going to find new business.”

Given the high dropout rates in New Haven Public Schools, more pathways to “job-readiness” should be developed, Harp said. She cited the model of Gateway Community College, which offers a series of degree and certificate programs that coordinate with employers to make sure students get the skills to make them competitive in the new workforce that Bradley described.

LENDING A HAND

Both candidates said the need to address poverty animates their entire agenda. But they also said improving residents’ lives hinges on the city finding more secure fiscal footing of its own. Harp said she has the clout in Hartford to lobby the state for more resources to address financial inequities between the inner city and more affluent suburbs.

Elicker accused Harp of failing to advocate for New Haven’s financial interests at the state capitol in her capacity as an 11-term state senator. He said the city’s persistent requests for more regional resource sharing and state funding have fallen on deaf ears.

Grubbs, who said Christian Community Action seeks frequent opportunities to testify at the state capitol, praised Harp as an ally of the city’s social service providers. Though she declined to say for whom she would be voting on Nov. 5, Grubbs said Harp has a clear understanding of the needs of the poorest city residents.

“What’s best is when the people seeking help with us are involved in the process of testifying,” Grubbs said. “All of the folks in the New Haven delegation have been receptive to them, but to say there’s more that needs to be done, well, that would be a major understatement.”

 

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