Hartford isn’t the problem
Bob Stefanowski recently wrote an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal about Hartford, the city that I call home. In it the failed gubernatorial candidate showcased his profound inability to grasp the substantive and political realities of our state’s failures. In fact, the only thing I learned from it was that all you need to be published in the Wall Street Journal these days is a failed statewide campaign and a strident, anti-urban viewpoint devoid of facts.
I don’t share the latter, but as a fellow failed candidate for statewide office in Connecticut in the 2018 election, I suddenly feel qualified to use my voice to educate Stefanowski on the inherent inefficiencies and the inescapable inequality produced by a system of government in which just 3.5 million people are separated into 169 separate municipalities.
Let’s start with this basic fact: although it may be tempting to reach for easy solutions, the problems Hartford faces cannot simply be chalked up to overspending. Hartford spends just $4,697 on a per capita basis, which is only about 60 percent of the $7,782 that Westport spends on each of its residents. The reality of this gap is far wider when you consider the multiple layers of social problems the leaders of our city must address with those $4,697 when surrounding towns disclaim responsibility.
For me this is driven home by the numerous heroin addicted kids who grew up in suburban towns and now call my neighborhood home, or the BMWs with college stickers who buy drugs from the corner my kids bike past each weekend. The sons and daughters of respectable community leaders in communities like Stefanowski’s literally fund so much of the violence that he decries and much like their parents carry so few of the consequences.
But it is not just drug addicted people. Hartford suffers from the decades of disinvestment that followed white flight, yet still pays for benefits that are shared by the entire region. Half of Hartford’s 18 square miles is nontaxable due to hospitals where suburban babies are delivered, colleges suburban kids attend, and churches suburban worshippers attend. Those are all great things, but when the city asks the state to fully fund its payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) for shared services we are rebuffed from many of the same people who share in those services and work in our downtown.
Stefanowski is especially familiar with this dynamic: seeking benefits from urban areas while ignoring consequences of societal disinvestment. His only professional accomplishment aside from a failed campaign is making his fortune as a payday lender, leeching off hardworking people like my neighbors in their most vulnerable moments to make dishonest profits.
The remaining nine square miles of my city holds hundreds of thousands of people who work hard every day but live in neighborhoods that have been neglected by the state and federal for decades. In my neighborhood we have Great Depression levels of unemployment and 60 percent of households have incomes under $24,000 a year.
Taken as a whole Hartford, a city of 122,500, collects 58 percent less in total tax revenue than neighboring West Hartford (with 63,000 residents) and 6 percent less than Glastonbury (with 34,400 residents). The Great Depression was met with an unprecedented level of investment from the federal government. Yet many neighborhoods in Hartford suffering their own endless depression are met with empty moralizing over our city’s mill rate, management, and social services from those unwilling to actually invest in transforming a city full of potential into the economic driver it can become.
Austerity is not going to fundamentally solve Hartford’s problems, it has been tried and the fact that we are still having this debate proves that it has been a failure. I have a different idea: what if instead we invest in the potential that already exists in Hartford?
What if we created an education system that affirms that kids who grow up here have the same potential as those who grow up in the nicely manicured communities that surround us? What if we invested in the potential of Black and brown businesses in our state’s capital? If you don’t know the residents of Hartford, then take my word for it: they are among the most hard working, entrepreneurial, creative, and fiscally responsible people I have met in my time in the private sector or in state service.
What if we try to undo decades of disinvestment not by further disinvestment as Stefanowski suggests, but by empowering the residents of Hartford to create the solutions to their economic future? Sen. John Fonfara, for instance, has a bill that would park a portion of our state’s funds in credit unions that invest in “Renaissance Zones” in the most disproportionately impacted communities in the state. Unless we are serious about investing in education, humane housing with a pathway to homeownership, Hartford-owned businesses, and infrastructure we will be having this same debate 20 years from now.
Great leaders, instead of taking the same old, tired, failed explanations and solutions to our problems, must have the moral imagination to dream of a better world, and in the words of Robert F. Kennedy ask “why not?” I pray that the residents of our state can still dream of a better future, in which we invest in the potential that already exists in Hartford. The solution isn’t easy, but it is simple: believe in Hartford.
Arunan Arulampalam is Deputy Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection.
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