Just inside the front door of the James Hillhouse Comprehensive High School in New Haven, Connecticut looms a full-body metal detector: the first test students must pass every day. On her way to class each morning, recent graduate Coral Ortiz, like her peers, had to endure both this and a bag-search.
The trials of the day only began with the metal detector and police officers. Subsequently, Ortiz and her classmates sat in under-supplied classrooms; this year, she endured her calculus class without a textbook. Ultimately, Ortiz had to study on her own, without the support of her school, for many of her Advanced Placement examinations, a high-stakes endeavor for a student intent on competitive college admissions.
There were challenges to face outside of the classroom, too. These ranged from the complexities of the FAFSA to the trauma that accompanied a classmate’s death from gun violence. Ortiz, who sat on the Connecticut State Board of Education and the Student State Advisory Committee, described the differences she found striking on the state level: students from upper-middle class towns reiterated to the committee the need for advising structures, while New Haven representatives prioritized initiatives focusing on “how [to] get kids into class in the first place,” Ortiz told the HPR. Whereas students from wealthier districts described stress borne of parental pressure over academics, Ortiz and her fellows described stress born of homelife trauma. In the same state, two different worlds come quickly into focus: one of wealth and privilege, and one of poverty and disadvantage.
In Connecticut, these stark divisions have polarized the state’s politics and instilled a sense of powerlessness in voters. The resulting political gridlock and voter dissatisfaction only exacerbates these feelings of inefficacy, leading the state into a downward cycle that encourages polarization. But by looking further into the disparities that plague Connecticut, it becomes clear that the state’s political problems take root in a combination of deeply embedded cultural and economic disparities.
To fully understand Connecticut’s economic issues one must first understand the individual impact of Connecticut’s economic disparities. Despite the state’s status as the wealthiest in the country, two out of every five Connecticut households earn incomes below the state’s cost-of-living of about $71,000 per year for a family of four.
Connecticut’s Naugatuck River Valley demonstrates the political impact of this intense economic disparity. Known as the state’s “Rust Belt,” the region’s moniker stems from its crippling post-industrial flight and slow recovery through the latter-half of the 20th century. Decades later, a large number of abandoned factories still litter the Valley. And last fall, 24 out of the 28 towns and cities in the Naugatuck River Valley voted for Donald Trump, while Connecticut as a whole went firmly for Hillary Clinton,
Many in this area face economic instability and high taxes, and bear the feelings of helplessness that result. This economic instability lessens the likelihood that individuals will vote: in 2014, only 32 percent of individuals making less than $30,000 voted, as compared to 57 percent of those making $150,000 and up. In Ansonia, for example, only about two-thirds of adults are both registered and active voters. The other third’s lack of political engagement lends more weight to the perhaps unrepresentative voting trends of a smaller, more invested voting population. And these effects can snowball: if Connecticut turns more red in 2018, a large part of that momentum will come from the Valley.
Connecticut’s wealth disparity also manifests itself in educational imbalances. According to the Connecticut Council for Education Reform, Connecticut is home to the largest educational achievement gap in the United States. In Fairfield County, New Canaan, a top-performing, wealthy, almost entirely white district borders Bridgeport, a low-performing, impoverished district. In the former, students perform about three grade levels above the national average; in the latter, students perform about two grade levels behind the national average. This problem has existed for years, predominantly impacting communities of color that, due to the segregative housing policies of Connecticut’s past, live in economically disadvantaged areas.
The frustration that accompanies inaction on educational reform is palpable and pressing, all the way down to the local level. Ron Napoli, an alderman in the City of Waterbury, where students perform 1.3 grade levels below average, told the HPR that Connecticut’s method of funding education in urban areas is “unfair.” “For years the State has given the City of Waterbury the same level of funding,” Napoli said. “Over the past 10 years our population has increased [by] more than 1,000 students. In almost all suburban and rural areas, student enrollment has decreased each year, and they still receive the same level of funding.”
The impact of educational disparity lingers after graduation by impacting graduates’ voting behavior. Nationally, only about 40 percent of high school graduates vote, compared to about 70 percent of those who have attained a master’s degree or more. This dichotomy goes on to widen political divisions in a cycle that, unchecked, will only perpetuate itself.
The pervasive struggles Connecticut has faced in implementing educational change, particularly the pervasiveness of “de facto racial segregation” induced by economic disparity, indicate that the forces behind the region’s political gridlock extend far beyond economic strife.
Historically, zoning laws, redlining, and wealth disparity have separated different racial groups and economic groups in Connecticut. But now, gentrification is fundamentally altering community demographics.
Take the example New Haven, home to around 130,000 residents, about 80 percent of whom identify as non-white. The area outside of New Haven, however is predominantly white. As New Haven gentrifies, the surrounding cities begin to undergo demographic shifts, while their neighboring suburbs remain largely white. This phenomenon is a source of amorphous tension in regions across the state, as stagnant, majority-white neighborhoods struggle to accommodate new residents who have been pushed out of increasingly unaffordable housing arrangements.
One manifestation of these tensions is the historic racism in the Nutmeg State. While the KKK’s presence has dropped since its early-20th century peak, the group has reappeared in Connecticut many times since. A post-2016 election video showed a white man dressed in Klan garb, bearing a Trump flag beside a bonfire. In southern Connecticut, one resident drives a notorious pickup truck that dons two Confederate flags. These violent images not only indicate long-extant racial tensions but also visceral dissatisfaction and feelings of powerlessness. These feelings, combined with persistent economic inequality, have brought tensions in the state to a head.
As a result of the combined wealth and cultural disparities in the state, Connecticut politics have become deadlocked. While Democrats dominate Connecticut on the national level, the state level is firmly split down partisan lines. Currently, the State Senate consists of 18 Democrats and 18 Republicans. As of April 25th, the State House of Representatives is 52 percent Democratic and 48 percent Republican. In addition, Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy is the third-least popular governor in the country.
Connecticut residents from New Canaan to New Haven are frustrated by the economic and cultural issues of the state, and blame their political leaders. Despite politicians’ efforts, the problems of economic, cultural, and educational disparity persist, and Nutmeggers are slow to forget failed attempts at change. Unsuccessful busing programs and failed tax hikes alike testify to the incompetency of the state government, as does the ongoing Connecticut budget crisis. The state has yet to pass its July 1 budget, and State House is considering whether to overturn Malloy’s veto of the most recent budget proposal, a document spearheaded by Republican representatives.
Polarization both causes and perpetuates circumstances such as this. As Nutmeggers feel torn between two diverging ends of the political spectrum, their voting practices shift: some switch parties, others stop voting altogether. About roughly 600,000 individuals in Connecticut aren’t registered to vote. With all these factors at play, it’s unsurprising that both deadlock and polarization should plague modern politics—and that the aggressive rhetoric of politicians like President Trump should attract large swaths of voters who seek empowerment. Inefficacy thus manifests as both anger and apathy, and the result in Connecticut and the United States alike is tension between people and their political leaders.
As Connecticut grapples with its divisions, its methods may offer a blueprint towards reconciling the issues of polarization and civic distrust in the wider United States. In a 2016 Gallup poll, only about 35 percent of Americans expressed trust in the federal legislative branch, and only about 42 percent expressed trust in political leaders at large. In 2016, only 55 percent of Americans over the age of 18 voted—the lowest turnout since 1996. The roots of this American distrust and passivity trace back to severe economic inequality and cultural disparities between the central and coastal United States—the same underlying forces that drive divisions in Connecticut.
Perhaps the only true way to combat this gridlock is by endowing everyday citizens with a sense of agency in the voting process. If middle-ground voters do not make strong showings at the polls, legislatures across Connecticut and the United States will remain split along strict ideological lines.
Day-of voter registration offers one step towards combating sentiments of powerlessness. This practice allows on-the-fence voters to make last-minute choices and gives unregistered voters a chance to make their voices heard on voting day. Since voter registration laws at large tend to disproportionately affect communities of color and impoverished areas, their loosening could restore a sense of agency in the voting process for individuals struggling with pervasive institutional discrimination.
Civics education also plays a key role in reestablishing voters’ sense of efficacy. Connecticut has revised its civics curriculum in recent years, and now allows fifth-graders to participate in a hands-on “kid governor” election. Programs like this combat feelings of voicelessness early on, preparing students to become active citizens in adulthood.
Regardless of the path Connecticut takes, the state must finally confront its many disparities in order to restore its voters’ trust in the government and in political processes. Only then can Connecticut, and possibly the wider United States, confront their racial disparity, economic dissatisfaction, and cultural strife. And only then can Connecticut hope to empower youths like Ortiz—not only to remain in the Nutmeg State, but also to actively participate in the making of Connecticut’s future.