Published in The Day

By Lisa McGinley
Opinion Writer

The news business regularly reinforces the lesson that most people react with empathy to the hard times of a single person or family, yet not so much to the plight of a multitude. They will donate to a fund for a family whose house burns down because they can see the specifics of the loss. But when the measure of a hardship, such as many families without homes, is in numbers rather than words or pictures, imagination does not grasp the impersonal.

People may turn away simply because it comes naturally to feel for someone identifiable by name or face, but not for a thousand unnamed strangers.

Connecticut has such a hardship story, which would tug at the heart if it were about one little kid whose picture ran in the news. The problem is child poverty, and it affects more than 80,000 children. How to help 80,000 kids at once?

Child advocates have short-term suggestions. Some are proven, like the federal Child Tax Credit that pulled more than 2 million children out of poverty for the two pandemic years that it was in effect, or like funding healthy school meals.

In the long term, however, such organizations as Connecticut Voices for Children and the Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance want changes so deep and so broad that they will take years to implement and will depend on reorienting how people perceive the desperate needs of other people’s children. They want legislators and voters to value the lives and well-being of 80,000 young strangers and understand how greatly that will benefit Connecticut as a whole.

Regionally, the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut has taken the lead with its End Child Poverty platform. Fifty organizations have signed on to changing the systems that keep children and families down.

Of course those organizations would have a handle on how it could be if child poverty were a priority for Connecticut. They are the nonprofits that try to salvage children’s futures from all the ills stemming from chronic shortages of everything in those kids’ lives.

They want others, too, to recognize an uncomfortable truth about growing up poor in Connecticut: that we are collectively shrugging our shoulders and leaving thousands of children to their hard luck at being raised in the most expensive state for bringing up a child. Households earning the income that the federal government calculates as putting a family above the poverty line can’t make ends meet in Connecticut.

The organizations want to changes attitudes about affordable housing and Connecticut’s no-fault eviction law so that families have protection against eviction without just cause. As of now, families — any family with normally boisterous kids, but particularly families of color — are among the first to lose their rentals. Losing a home traumatizes children; a move to an unfamiliar school, teacher and classmates adds to their sense of dislocation and affects their learning.

Entire childhoods are being spent under the threat of not enough: food, shelter, a familiar neighborhood, health care and other necessities of 21st-century life.

Are we OK with relegating 80,000 Connecticut kids to a childhood and youth of permanent crisis?

In the course of a panel the foundation hosted last week at Waterford Library, state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, insisted that listeners grasp an element of the problem specific to this part of the state. Osten said the most recent legislative session repeated the usual pattern of disproportionately funding programs and municipalities in other parts of Connecticut, despite the fact that 50 percent of “distressed” communities are along the I-395 corridor in eastern Connecticut.

Some attendees may have thought Osten was changing the subject, but from years on The Day’s city desk I know she is right, and that fixing that inequity must be part of any systems change. Under governors M. Jodi Rell and Dannel Malloy and earlier congressional delegations we saw egregious examples of funds going everywhere else first — such as firefighting equipment and radio communications after the 9/11 attacks. And this is the part of the state with a major military installation and one of only two submarine shipyards.

The worst example was when the Malloy administration ballyhooed new connections between research at the University of Connecticut and nearby major employers and industries, somehow leaving out Avery Point in Groton and its neighbor, Electric Boat. The governor had no answer when a reporter asked about the missing link. It was just the way things have been done for a long time, and still are.

Change means what it’s called, however, and like every other change these will be resisted. But let’s not forget the moral logic of this: Not addressing child poverty on a large scale is the same as saying we as a society can put up with it.

Are we OK with that?

Lisa McGinley is member of The Day Editorial Board.