Green­wich? All that’s green isn’t lush

The News-Times - - NEWS - JAMES WALKER James Walker is the New Haven Regis­ter’s se­nior ed­i­tor and a statewide colum­nist for Hearst Con­necti­cut news­pa­pers. He can be reached at 203-680-9389 or [email protected]­medi­act.com. @the­lieon­roars on Twit­ter

I took a ride around Green­wich last Thurs­day in ar­eas where the re­wards of cap­i­tal­ism line streets with gated man­sions that sit on ar­chi­tec­turally de­signed lawns sur­rounded by land­scaped gar­dens.

I was in the car of David Rabin, the CEO and pres­i­dent of Green­wich United Way, as he in­tro­duced me to the town that he has called his “adopted home” since ar­riv­ing in the 1990s.

We drove on wind­ing streets that ap­peared more like pri­vate roads lead­ing to an end­less ar­ray of es­tates. We drove past homes where stat­ues stood like sen­tinels at drive­way en­trances, and past homes hid­den by thick, lush green fo­liage and oth­ers where only the sprawl­ing tops were vis­i­ble.

They say the grass isn’t al­ways greener on the other side but that is hard to be­lieve when you drive past homes so big they could house 10 fam­i­lies and still have room for guests.

It is a life­style of op­u­lence only a few get to en­joy in this land of op­por­tu­nity called Amer­ica. It is where old fam­ily money shakes hands with new money fos­tered by Wall Street fi­nanciers, movie stars and wealthy politi­cians.

Song­writer Billy Stray­horn long ago dubbed it a “Lush Life” — and lush it is. And like many other Amer­i­cans, I can only dream about hav­ing it.

But the song doesn’t play for ev­ery­one in Green­wich, and as we drove it was not hard to spot all that’s green isn’t lush.

Less than a 30-sec­ond drive from the sculpted lawns, stone walls and wa­ter­views lies the other side no­body talks about — the side where so­cial ser­vices are in de­mand and the need is grow­ing.

That is why I was in Green­wich. Like many peo­ple, I didn’t know poverty ex­isted in this town syn­ony­mous with wealth. It seems unimag­in­able when con­sid­er­ing its grand list of tax­able prop­erty for 2018 was in ex­cess of $32 bil­lion, and car deal­er­ships on the strip carry names such as Rolls Royce and Bent­ley.

I guess those fi­nanciers, movie stars and wealthy politi­cians sure bring a lot of ze­ros to the bot­tom line.

But looks are de­ceiv­ing and poverty has be­come en­twined in the ivy.

The town has been “evolv­ing and chang­ing” and, since 2010, has seen a 4 per­cent surge in its Latino pop­u­la­tion, many of them in need of as­sis­tance.

Rabin said 6 per­cent of res­i­dents live below the poverty level and 22 per­cent fall un­der ALICE, an acro­nym for As­set Lim­ited, In­come Con­strained, Em­ployed, that rep­re­sents the house­holds with in­come above the Fed­eral Poverty Level but below the ba­sic cost of liv­ing.

“We have four Ti­tle 1 schools,” Rabin said. “Ninety per­cent of the stu­dents on the western side of town are el­i­gi­ble for free lunch.”

Rabin said it is dif­fi­cult for peo­ple to see past the man­sions and rec­og­nize there also is pub­lic hous­ing, Sec­tion 8 vouch­ers and a need for food and other ser­vices for ap­prox­i­mately

17,000 in this town of

62,000-plus.

But how the Fed­eral Poverty Level is de­ter­mined is part of the prob­lem, if you ask Rabin’s coun­ter­part at the Green­wich De­part­ment of Hu­man Ser­vices , whom I met with later that day.

Alan Barry sat in his of­fice on West Put­nam Av­enue, where he, too, is grap­pling with so­lu­tions to meet the de­mands of a grow­ing pop­u­la­tion with greater needs.

The com­mis­sioner of the De­part­ment of Hu­man Ser­vices said con­di­tions for low-in­come peo­ple are get­ting worse. He said it is inex­cus­able be­cause the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple com­ing into his agency are work­ing, but the hole keeps get­ting deeper for them be­cause they do not earn a liv­able wage.

He said there may be cheers about an un­em­ploy­ment rate that stands at 3.8 per­cent, but they are not com­ing from him. He said the vast num­ber of jobs are min­i­mum wage in the ser­vice in­dus­try and noted peo­ple are work­ing two jobs and still reach­ing out for help.

Barry said with cor­po­ra­tions not keep­ing up their end to pay peo­ple re­spon­si­bly, the push for so­cial ser­vices to fill the gap is be­com­ing the norm — and that is not the way it is sup­posed to be.

“I am frus­trated,” he said. “I am re­ally wor­ried we are not do­ing some­thing about it be­cause we have ac­cepted it.”

Barry said even try­ing to fill that gap is a huge prob­lem due to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s one-size-fits-all con­cept in set­ting the poverty level — which does not take into con­sid­er­a­tion the dif­fer­ent re­gions when de­ter­min­ing fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance.

That leaves wealthy com­mu­ni­ties such as Green­wich, along with ur­ban com­mu­ni­ties such as New Haven, Bridge­port, Nor­walk, Stam­ford and Dan­bury, strug­gling to pro­vide ser­vices with dol­lar amounts equal to those given to com­mu­ni­ties in the South or Mid­west, where the cost of liv­ing is vastly below what it is in the North­east.

Green­wich is made up of sev­eral dis­tinct neigh­bor­hoods, in­clud­ing Byram, Cos Cob, Glenville, Mianus, Old Green­wich, River­side and Green­wich proper.

Ac­cord­ing to businessin­sider.com, Old Green­wich is the 12thwealth­i­est com­mu­nity in the United States, with an av­er­age in­come in ex­cess of

$335,000.

But poverty is in­fec­tious. It is spread­ing and ZIP codes are mean­ing­less to it.

I learned that on my ride around the wealth­i­est com­mu­nity in Con­necti­cut, where I felt like a tres­passer peep­ing through the win­dow.

But I was just pass­ing through. The tres­passer that has planted its feet is poverty — and some­how, that didn’t feel right amongst the gated man­sions and wealth.

Green­wich? All that’s green isn’t lush.

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