Life for Poor Children Worsens in the Nation's Wealthiest State
By Clare Nolan, Senior Writer
WASHINGTON -- As befits a state populated nearly end-to-end by well-heeled suburbanites, the state of Connecticut - by many measures the nation's richest - boasts a better record in the war on poverty than most.
In a report on the status of American children released recently by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Connecticut ranked 12th among the states for its relatively low infant mortality rate, its high percentage of high school graduates and its few teen suicides and accidental deaths.
But the report also showed that in recent years, poverty has flourished amid Connecticut's plenty. As conditions for children over the past ten years have improved nationwide, they have worsened in Connecticut.
In 1990, when the Casey Foundation began its annual Kids Count surveys, the state ranked 2nd behind New Hampshire.
It's been downhill ever since.
Connecticut offers most of its residents ideal conditions for raising children. It is densely populated, but most people live in small cities and in the wealthy suburbs just across the border from New York City. Its schools are among the best in the nation.
"In those states that do well, a large share of the population lives in small towns and communities," said William O'Hare of the Casey Foundation. New Hampshire, which also meets that description, has consistently ranked in the Kids Count top three.
Unlike New Hampshire, however, Connecticut must contend with persistent poverty in New Haven and Hartford.
Over the past ten years, the percentage of children living below the federal poverty level in Connecticut has jumped 30 percent, from 12 percent in 1985 to 17 percent in 1996.
"We have really been doing a fast fade in the poverty statistics," said Paul Gionfriddo, Executive Director of the Connecticut Association for Human Services. "We've had the most dramatic increase in childhood poverty over the past 10 to 15 years."
"We're not surprised with what the report shows," said Claudette Beaulieu, spokesperson for the Connecticut Department of Social Services. "While the rest of the country was experiencing an economic recovery, we were not."
Beaulieu says the 1990-92 recession dealt Connecticut a severe blow, from which it recovered more slowly than other states.
"The report because it only goes to '96 doesn't show the impact of what we've done in the last few years to reverse the trend," Beaulieu said. Many of the statistics in the 1999 Kids Count report date from 1996, the latest year for which figures are available.
Beaulieu says the state's overhaul of its welfare system and its new Children's Health Insurance Program initiatives begun in 1996 and 1998, respectively will reverse the state's slide. "We think our welfare reform is doing extremely well," she said.
Advocates for children, however, point to years of disconnect between Connecticut's working poor and its white-collar residents, a gulf that mirrors the widening class divide nationwide.
According to Shelley Geballe, President of Connecticut Voices for Children, the state's lowest-paid workers have only just begun to see their wages recover from a decade of decline.
In the recession of the early 1990s, Connecticut lost 100,000 high-paying jobs in manufacturing, finance and insurance, Geballe said. The state has now replaced most of those jobs, she said, but the tradeoff has been costly.
"We've had a fairly significant change in our labor market since 1989."
Unqualified for the new service economy's best jobs, shipbuilders and other laborers were forced into work that paid less than what they once earned.
Geballe, who recently analyzed state statistics in a report, Connecticut Families: Poverty Despite Work , says workers who made $9.00/hour on average in 1989 earned less than $8.00/hour in 1997, adjusted for inflation.
"You could say poverty is catching up with more people," said Gionfriddo of the Connecticut Association for Human Services.
While the wages of the lowest-paid dipped, the wealthy prospered.
Connecticut residents have been and continue to be the nations' richest, with an average per capita income of $35,863 in 1996. That's 33 percent more than the average American's salary of $24,164 in the same year. Connecticut residents also pay the most per person in state and federal taxes.
The gap between rich and poor in Connecticut is the second widest of all the states, Gionfriddo says.
"It would appear that wealth is being concentrated among the wealthier," he said. "Over the last 20 years, the rate of increase in the disparity has been the fastest in the nation."
According to Geballe's report, the state's poorest families the bottom fifth saw their real income decline in the nine years from 1987 to 1996, from $15,066 to $10,415. The earnings of the most affluent Connecticut families rose from $132,679 to $147,594 over the same time period.
Other factors have also contributed to Connecticut's higher child poverty rate. More and more of the state's families are headed by single parents, most of whom are women. Single parents headed 21 percent of Connecticut's families in 1985. By 1996, that percentage had grown to 27 percent.
Children of single mothers are much more likely to be poor than children who live with both parents.
Connecticut has also seen its teen birth rate rise faster than other states. Teen mothers are also much more likely to be poor and much more likely to rely on welfare at some point in their lives, conditions which guarantee their children a slow start in life.
As Beaulieu of the state Department of Social Services argues, Connecticut may have begun to reverse its descent. Advocates for the poor agree things are improving.
Connecticut has increased the minimum wage to $5.65 an hour and will raise it another $.50 on January 1, 2000. Its unemployment rate continues to remain low. And it still ranks near the top in the percentage of high school graduates.
While the state's child poverty rate was rising, its graduation rate also increased, from 91 percent in 1985 to 95 percent in 1986, the second highest in the nation.