Alan Barry: Income Inequality in Greenwich? You must be Kidding!

by Alan D. Barry, Ph.D. Commissioner, Greenwich Department of Human Services

You have heard all the good news. America’s unemployment rate is near half-century lows. There are more job openings than unemployed workers for the first time since the government started tracking that ratio. The latest tax cut helps all of us. Optimism about the economy prevails.

So why isn’t everyone in Greenwich prospering and feeling confident about the future?

The major stumbling block is that hourly wages are stagnant. In fact, over the last forty years, corporate profits have risen dramatically, but real hourly wages, adjusted for inflation, have remained flat for workers without a college education.

The question is not whether a job can be found but rather does the job pay enough to live on?

This dilemma is especially critical for a person without much education.

While wages have failed to accelerate, consumer prices have climbed. In the past year, consumer price inflation was 2.9%, just about the same rate as hourly pay.

For a significant portion of U.S. citizens, the recovery has passed them by. Income inequality in our town continues to grow.

We all know that the cost of living in Greenwich is far higher than the national average. There is a shortage of jobs that pay a living wage. Residents are challenged to pay a higher percentage of their income for housing and other basic needs. The result is an increase in the number of people in Greenwich struggling to make ends meet. At the end of the month there is little if any income left over to save for college or retirement.

Families are one pay check away from financial disaster if the head of household loses their job, is seriously ill/disabled or dies.

Currently, 6% of Greenwich residents fall below the federal poverty line; for a family of four that equates to $25,000 in annual in income. The United Way’s latest ALICE report (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) calculates that a family of four needs to earn $82,000
to reach a comfortable level of financial security in this area.

The ALICE calculation formula estimates that 21% of the Greenwich population is struggling and in some cases cannot afford basic necessities. This at-risk population has grown by 6% from the last ALICE Report in 2016.

One result of this economic divide is shown in the variation in student achievement testing at our public schools. The lower performing testing results are in Greenwich schools that are in neighborhoods with lower average incomes.

What to Do
Government programs such as Husky (Medicaid insurance) SNAP (food subsidies) and Energy Assistance (utilities) provide assistance that addresses specific needs and offer basic support for low income residents. The current patchwork of government subsidy programs assists with helping people to stay financially afloat.

There is a state minimum wage of $10.10 per hour which yields an annual pretax income of $21,000. Low income residents with less education are placed in a no-win situation by accepting a job that does not offer a living wage and they forfeit the eligibility for entitlements. We expect income inequality will continue for the foreseeable future.

Long term, The Greenwich Department of Human Services believes the answer is to tap the potential of education as the key for future employment success. The ultimate goal is for children from lower-income families to be better prepared to meet educational challenges and
employment opportunities. This effort needs to begin at infancy so they enter pre-K and kindergarten at an equal level as their higher income peers.

The department recently completed a report on the Greenwich Achievement Gap. It recommended a community-wide effort that targets high-at-risk children and families in need of support and services. Subsequently, the department helped form an Achievement Opportunity Gap Task Force that includes school representatives, social service and mental health agencies.

By establishing a comprehensive strategic planning effort, limited resources can be better targeted to achieve the goal of narrowing the achievement gap. Several important service-based collaborations are initiating or expanding efforts to provide home-based support services for infants, children and families.

The Department of Human Services’ Board believes everyone who works full time should get paid enough to care for themselves and their children. Greenwich will prosper and benefit when everyone has the opportunity to participate fully, fulfill their potential and achieve economic stability.