Chris Powell: A liberal state's failed poverty policy


Gov. Dannel Malloy wants to push more low-cost housing into Connecticut's suburbs. He proposed the other day to require suburbs to meet state standards for such housing on pain of losing some state financial aid. 

But last year the General Assembly passed a bill weakening requirements for towns to have low-cost housing, enacting it over the governor's veto, so his new proposal seems unlikely to get far.

Connecticut does have a housing problem, since most municipalities obstruct low-cost housing with their zoning regulations. But while the housing problem goes all the way back to the settlement of the state by Europeans, even today nobody can call it by its right name: poverty.

Three centuries ago Connecticut's first towns didn't let just anyone reside in them. People had to apply for residency and were voted on by those adult males who were already "admitted inhabitants." While the early towns were religious communities, they aimed not just to exclude freethinkers but also to avoid the expense of supporting people who could not support themselves, as back then simple survival was a struggle and there wasn't much to spare.

Exclusive zoning has come to replace the "admitted inhabitants" procedure because, while life is infinitely easier today, poverty is still undesirable to be around even as public policy manufactures it by destroying the family and subsidizing indolence and anti-social behavior so much that they can pay more than self-sufficiency and responsibility. Poverty has become such a big and politically influential industry in Connecticut that the failure of poverty policy to diminish poverty cannot even be acknowledged, much less addressed.

Hence Connecticut's political compromise. Those who are not poor agree to keep paying for the poverty industry as long as zoning confines it to the cities and deteriorating old mill villages.

Some people argue that poverty is less a function of poverty policy than tax and school financing policy. But state government long has been financing most of city school budgets without producing any educational or demographic improvement, and taxes are not driving city residents to the inner suburbs once they decide they want better lives any more than taxes have been driving many city parents to remove their children from neighborhood schools to "magnet" schools.

Rather, even many poor people themselves don't want to live around the pathologies of poverty. What is portrayed as the snobbery of the rich is actually widely shared.

Nothing about poverty is likely to improve when deterioration is mistaken for progress, as it was the other day when New Haven's school system announced that it will serve dinner to students in eight schools and study serving dinner in all its other schools. Most city schools already serve breakfast and lunch, and dinner is said to be necessary because many students don’t get it at home.

Once dinner is served at school, what's left but to have the teachers take the kids home with them at night?

Of course kids have to be fed, but ordinarily the inability or refusal of parents to feed their kids might be considered child neglect or abuse. Even so, the state Department of Children and Families declined a request for comment on the New Haven kids not being fed at home. Instead the situation will be legitimized and institutionalized.

The governor is a liberal, and liberalism used to boast that it sought to address the causes rather than just the symptoms of problems. Connecticut's housing disparities are mere symptoms of the failure of poverty policy, as are the state's education, crime, and health disparities, but in government here nothing succeeds -- financially, at least -- like failure.

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn., and a frequent contributor to New England Diary.