Published in The Day

By Lee Howard, Business Editor

Waterford ― A Wednesday forum on ending child poverty in Connecticut brought local legislators and statewide nonprofit advocates together to find common ground on policies that could make an impact.

The Waterford Public Library forum, attended by about 75 people and sponsored by the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut, found common ground on a proposal to establish a $600 child tax credit that didn’t pass during the just-completed state legislative session.

But other issues were more contentious, such as how to fund programs that help those mired in poverty and whether eastern Connecticut gets its fair share of the state budget pie, including for Shore Line East train service and affordable housing grants.

“If you look at the budget, most of the money went to the western part of the state to communities that are not distressed,” state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague.

As co-chair of the legislature’s Appropriations Committee she complained that Gov. Ned Lamont’s chief of staff had largely taken over the budget-setting reins.

“They deliberately ... take things away from eastern Connecticut over and over and over again. That's why elected leaders should be doing the budget,” she said.

Osten said she has sympathy for many of the programs that the Community Foundation has proposed, including the child tax credit, paid leave, healthy school meals and an expansion of just-cause eviction laws to protect those threatened with unjust removal from their homes.

But she suggested that some of her fellow panelists, representing the Partnership for Strong Communities, Connecticut Voices for Children and the Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance, needed to agree to incremental changes rather than insist on immediate and complete reforms, and they should support the eastern part of the state, which has some of the most impoverished areas in Connecticut.

“I appreciate the policy people on the other end of the table. I really do,” Osten said to the biggest applause of the forum. “I love the work they do, but until all of them start standing up and say ‘we have one state,’ and they don't keep eastern Connecticut down I will continue to fight those policies...It’s not fair. It’s flat-out not fair.“

State Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, advocated taking $1 billion of the state’s $3.3 billion surplus to use as an emergency measure to start addressing issues such as housing affordability, child care costs, and guards against unjust eviction (he initially said the surplus was $6 billion, but was corrected by Osten).

“Take a reasonable amount to fix what needs to be fixed,” said Nolan, who also supported higher taxes for the wealthy.

Others suggested that a 2017 law that set guardrails to prevent the state from overspending its budget may have to be lifted to deal with the child-poverty crisis, which according to the most recent numbers left 82,000 children in Connecticut living in abject circumstances.

That’s about twice the number in poverty during a brief period during the COVID-19 pandemic when a federal $2,000 child tax credit was available to those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

But Osten was vehemently opposed to letting go of the 2017 fiscal guardrails, pointing out that before they were implemented Connecticut had been in a constant state of budget turmoil.

“The state of Connecticut in 2017, less than a decade ago, had zero dollars in their rainy day fund. We were borrowing money to pay for operational expenses. We cannot return to that. ... We had no money available to do anything. We were cutting programs by $10,000 and $100,000, and anybody who has a nonprofit knows that they did not see an increase for 20 years.”

State Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, agreed with Osten’s cautious approach, adding a note about the need for bipartisanship.

“Please, let’s bring both parties together,” she said.

Legislators and other panelists talked about some small victories from this year’s legislative session, including an expansion of paid sick days, exemptions from local taxes for veterans deemed 100% permanently disabled and more reasonable requirements for teacher certification in an effort to fill a current shortage of 1,300 educators in the state.

But Emily Byrne, executive director of the child advocacy group Connecticut Voices for Children, reminded attendees that they can remain impatient about injustice but need to remain patient about strategy.

”Systems change is long work,“ she said. ”It takes years, sometimes decades.“

And Osten pointed out that as important as child poverty is, it’s just one side of a coin that also includes the struggles of seniors on fixed incomes in Connecticut, one of the few states that still taxes Social Security and pension income.

“This has to be a combination of where we're not just helping one side of the family issue and not the other side of the family issue,” Osten said. “We’ve got a lot of poor people in eastern Connecticut.”

Maryam Elahi, executive director of the Community Foundation, said Wednesday’s event was an attempt to form a united platform for collective advocacy to bring about system change.

“We are solution-driven,” she said. “That’s how our end-child-poverty campaign came about.”

“We can end child poverty. Let’s do it,” concluded moderator Janée Woods Weber.