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DANBURY Employed but still struggling

September 8, 2018

DANBURY — A new United Way report delivers a sobering statistic: Half of Danbury households struggle to pay for necessities like housing, child care and groceries.

But those 15,400 households across the city are not the initial stereotype that first comes to many people’s minds, local officials warn.

These are families who are “employed but constrained,” not homeless or living in squalor. They have jobs, many earning $20 to $40 per hour, but who still struggle to afford the nearly $78,000 in basic needs the report estimates a family of four faces every year.

“We’re talking about your home health aid or your grocery store clerk, not somebody out there panhandling on the street,” said Kim Morgan, CEO of the United Way of Western Connecticut. “If 50 percent of the people of Danbury are quietly struggling to put food on the table or pay their bills, they’re not complaining about it or telling people out on the street.

“But they’re the ones who can’t write the check for their child’s sports team,” she continued. “These are families who have to pause at every decision and calculate how they are going to make this happen.”

The findings punctuate the United Way’s annual financial hardship report, which found that almost 40 percent of households across the state — almost 540,000 — live below the federal poverty line or hover just above it and qualify as United Way asset-limited, income-constrained and employed, or ALICE, households.

Although half of Danbury residents meet that criteria, the city has among the lowest percentage among other urban centers with more than 25,000 households, according to the report. Bridgeport is the highest with 72 percent of households meeting the criteria, followed by Hartford at 70 percent and New Haven at 66 percent.

The primary driver is that the costs of basic necessities — groceries, transportation, health care and child care, for example — have increased faster than wages, leaders said.

Despite 55 percent of jobs in the state paying more than $20 per hour — among the highest in the country — only one of the top 20 most common jobs pay enough to afford those basic family costs, according to the report. Even top jobs like nursing and teaching, two of the most common in Danbury, can leave families struggling, the United Way found.

“I don’t think it would be a shock to say most families have to make choices, that ‘constrained’ part of ALICE,” said Stephen Nocera, director of the city’s Office of Project Excellence. “Sometimes those choices aren’t fun. Sometimes it’s between employment and child care.

“What I took to heart is that in Danbury, we’re the lowest save two other municipalities,” he said. “That’s more reflective of where Danbury’s standing is. Danbury is holding its own relative to the large cities in the state and to that extent, we’re mitigating these factors to some degree.”

Nocera’s office and the United Way of Western Connecticut have focused their work this year on helping ALICE families living above the federal poverty line who might not otherwise have formal support programs.

Last month, the groups submitted their final proposal for the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ 2018 Mayor’s Challenge’s $5 million grand prize to create a network of new and affordable child care providers across the city. Danbury also received a $450,000 Working Cities Challenge grant to reduce poverty by 30 percent over the next decade and another $1 million private gift in April.

“If 50 percent of our families are struggling week to week, they’re hypersensitive to things like tax increases to create programs,” Mayor Mark Boughton said. “Chasing your tail is not going to work. The better approach is to try to get people to collaborate together and nonprofits to work together.”

Better wages and early childhood education are long-term solutions, but the groups will continue to work this year and next on financial literacy, savings and credit programs, leaders said.

“What we’re looking at is really about empowerment,” Nocera said. “How do you look at the problems people face and design systems that empower people to overcome them? To meet the challenge and move on?

“Prosperity is one of those things where the more people that are doing better, the better everyone else continues to do.”

zach.murdock@hearstmediact.com

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