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Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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In Connecticut, Two Sides Of A Deep Economic Divide

Jan 17, 2013
Originally published on January 22, 2013 9:21 am

Editor's note: Our partner GlobalPost is launching a series that looks at wealth and poverty worldwide by comparing U.S. metro areas with foreign cities that have similar levels of income inequality. The findings may surprise you. This story from Fairfield County, Conn., and a companion piece from Bangkok, examine two places where the superrich and the very poor live just minutes apart.

The fragile peace of Ogden Street, of the houses facing Washington Park, of the families along Brooks and Stillman and Arctic, is interrupted night after night by gunfire and sirens and the shouting of young men.

In the past six months, nine residents of Bridgeport's East Side neighborhood were gunned down, many at random, four before their 16th birthday. In two separate incidents last summer, 15-year-olds were killed after leaving "sweet 16" parties, police say, by boys ejected for fighting. But the boys came back.

"They just drive up and open up on a house," said a woman from Ogden Street whose neighbor lost her daughter in one of the murders. "It's children killing children; they got nothing better to do."

Asked for her name, she added, "What, so they can come shoot me down? Hell, no!"

Welcome to Fairfield County, Conn., the wealthiest metropolitan area in the country, according to the Labor Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis, but also among the most unequal in terms in income distribution.

Down the highway headed south, in another Fairfield County community, gritty Bridgeport seems an awfully long way away. The 61,000 residents of Greenwich are oriented to the southwest — toward Manhattan, with its haute culture and financial district. The idea that Greenwich residents should feel somehow responsible, or even concerned, about the plight of 145,000 people in Bridgeport strikes many as odd — if not absurd.

"I don't think of it at all," said Karen Schiff, a well-dressed young woman heading home from the Greenwich train station from her job in New York. "I don't think I've ever even met someone from there. Maybe I drove through, I don't know."

Beside her, waiting at a bus stop just across the street from the Greenwich station was Clara Bing, who commutes each day from the nearby town of Norwalk to work at a local dry cleaning business. Bing used to make the same trip from Bridgeport, her hometown, but moved closer to work to cut down on commuting time.

"Funny thing is that lady probably meets someone from Bridgeport every day," Bing said. Turning toward Greenwich Avenue, with its Baccarat jewelry shop, Apple store and dozens of expensive boutiques, she said, "I used to ride in from Bridgeport with the people who work in those stores every day. As long as we go home at night, I guess, it's OK. It's like we're invisible."

The distance between these two places is not much, about 20 miles, but the gulf that separates them often seems too great to navigate for many residents on both sides of the divide. The vastly different experience of growing up in either cannot be exaggerated. Bridgeport, with its dilapidated factories and graffiti-scarred public housing projects, is a world away from the half-dozen other affluent communities that line the Connecticut shoreline between them, such as Westport and New Canaan.

But the affluent enclave of Greenwich tops them all. Swimming in the wealth extracted from Wall Street, the hedge fund and private equity groups nestled in the downtown business districts anchor communities centered around lavish country clubs, colonial mansions and public schools that send dozens of children to the Ivy League each year.

All except Bridgeport, that is. To walk down Bridgeport's deserted Main Street, with its boarded up stores and hard-luck hotels, and then stroll down Greenwich Avenue later that day, is to experience different planets.

The crime rate is high in Bridgeport. Gun violence is a fact of life and too often death. That's true not only in Bridgeport, but also across the economic divide, as the school shooting in nearby Newtown so tragically proved. Though there is crime on both sides of this county, the nature of lawbreaking seems different in Greenwich, where a series of high-profile white-collar crimes have been in the news.

Steven A. Cohen, founder of SAC Capital Advisors, is facing multiple insider-trading investigations into his $14 billion fund. His neighbor, Walter Noel, is the founder of a hedge fund, Fairfield Greenwich Group, that was the largest single beneficiary of the infamous Bernie Madoff fraud. It's a good bet some sleep was lost at the $10.8 billion mansion of Dick Fuld, former CEO of Lehman Brothers.

But for high-priced defense attorneys, a membership at the Greenwich Country Club and getaways to St. Barts can take the sting out of such things. For the residents of Bridgeport's Eastside, escape is not so easy.

The Gatsby Effect

While Bridgeport and Greenwich represent two extremes, economists — backed by a growing body of statistical evidence — suggest their radically different trajectories reflect a new reality in America.

The American dream — that touchstone of social mobility, opportunity and justice for all — has slipped beyond the grasp of an increasingly large proportion of American society as unequal origins increasingly fuel unequal outcomes.

"Inequality of opportunity has increased in recent decades," writes University of Arizona researcher Lane Kenworthy in Foreign Affairs magazine, whose coverage of this domestic topic is in itself indicative of the broader and global implications. "[A]vailable compilations of test scores, years of schooling completed, occupations, and incomes of parents and their children strongly suggest that the opportunity gap, which was narrowing until the 1970s, is now widening."

Put simply, in today's America, the children of the rich will very likely get richer, poor kids will probably remain so, and those in the vast middle class will be challenged, even in two-income households, to just tread water.

How can this be? The world still beats a path to America's door after all, and from all corners of American society it is still possible to point out the rags-to-riches stories that underpin so many people's faith in the country.

But increasingly, these are the exceptions that prove the trend economists have variously dubbed as the "Great Gatsby Curve" or the opportunity gap: Since 1971, the likelihood of someone born in the bottom five "quintiles" of the American income spectrum rising into the top two has drastically decreased. Household incomes in those bottom quintiles (representing 60 percent of all Americans) have barely grown.

Meanwhile, household income among those in the top two has soared — by 75 percent for those in the top 20 percent; for those earning in the top 5 percent of Americans, the increase is even more dramatic: 95 percent.

In the limited political debate that took place on this topic over the past election cycle, taxation — and competing plans to reform the way income tax is collected and its revenues spent — dominated the conversation.

But in Bridgeport, where incomes hover overwhelmingly in the bottom two quintiles, residents see their ills as going far beyond tax reform. Once a leading industrial city with huge factories that produced Singer sewing machines, Remington rifles, Sikorsky helicopters, engines and electronics for General Electric and components for the wartime Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bomb, Bridgeport has failed to reinvent itself.

As late as the mid-1970s, says Jeff Kohut, a lifelong resident and civic activist, "you could leave a job in the morning and have another after lunch. The factories were working at full capacity. Times were that good."

But with changing tax incentives and the loss of major industry, Bridgeport just couldn't keep up.

A Global Dream

Bridgeport's urban middle class, shorn of manufacturing jobs, spooked by rising crime rates and by what appeared to be the city's inability to do anything about it, fled for leafier towns beyond the city limits.

What followed produced a profound alienation between residents of the city and the towns around it. In a pattern repeated around the industrial Northeast and Midwest, fast-growing communities outside the city limits hooked up to highway networks, water and sewer lines developed by the cities, then lobbied to break their bonds with the declining urban centers.

In Connecticut, this process was supercharged when, in 1960, the suburban interests succeeded in changing the state constitution to abolish Connecticut's eight county governments, eliminating any hope that the affluence surrounding Bridgeport or other struggling cities could be harnessed for redevelopment.

Bridgeport natives like Kohut view this as a betrayal. The migration of more prosperous residents that fed the growth of neighboring towns like Stratford, Trumbull and Fairfield — "colonies of Bridgeport, if you will," says Kohut — encouraged a selfishness that exacerbated his hometown's decline.

But the failure of Bridgeport to revitalize cannot be laid completely at its neighbors' doorsteps, of course. Deep-seated corruption in Bridgeport's city government has been the cause of more than one grand plan's implosion.

Todd Addison, a Greenwich resident who runs a plastics manufacturing company in Brooklyn, N.Y., has some sympathy for the city up the highway.

"It's a unique place," Addison said of Bridgeport, a city he knows relatively well from his days living in nearby Trumbull. "It's located on the coast, on the water in Connecticut, and yet it's a place where people don't want to go."

Michael Moran is a GlobalPost columnist as well as the London-based director and editor-in-chief of Renaissance Insights at the Moscow-based investment bank Renaissance Capital.

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