[Excerpt of feature article by Sophie Bograd and Sylvan Lebrun, February 23, 2022]
More than four in 10 New Haven residents lost their job, used emergency food services or suffered financially during the pandemic.
These conclusions come from DataHaven’s 2021 Community Wellbeing Survey, which collected data from over 9,000 residents across Connecticut. DataHaven, a nonprofit focused on data analysis and quality of life, released full survey results on Feb. 13. The results indicated that COVID-19 negatively impacted towns throughout the state, but that adults in urban areas — like the Elm City — were more likely to experience hardships due to the pandemic.
“Wealthier families, many people were saying they were actually better-off financially during the pandemic,” Mark Abraham, executive director of DataHaven, told the News. “People who were more likely to be renters or have lower incomes, many of them said they were actually worse off in the past 12 months, even despite all the relief programs and stimulus checks.”
Abraham said that these findings were somewhat surprising, but that they also “validate what people who work in the community see on a day-to-day basis.”
According to the survey results, 15 percent of New Haven residents experienced difficulties paying for food, while 11 percent struggled to pay for housing.
The survey also reflected disparities in race and gender. In Connecticut, 22 percent of Latinx and 20 percent of Black adults reported having experienced food insecurity since Feb. 2020; This is more than two times that of white respondents, of which eight percent reported food insecurity. Meanwhile, 14 percent of women reported food insecurity across the same timeframe, compared to eight percent of men.
These survey results align with the findings of several community organizations serving New Haven amid the pandemic. Bill Villano, CEO of the job resource center Workforce Alliance, shared that those who had been hit the hardest economically were “disproportionately minority, disproportionately women.”
DataHaven’s findings regarding housing insecurity in New Haven also align with greater trends in the city since the beginning of the pandemic. According to data provided by the Greater New Haven Regional Alliance to End Homelessness, there were over 200 more evictions in 2021 than in 2020, leading to an increase in the demand on emergency housing services.
Margaret Middleton, CEO of homelessness service provider Columbus House, shared that the number of calls placed to the 2-1-1 system, which is a hotline connecting Connecticut residents to critical resources like housing or healthcare, has shot up during the pandemic.
According to Middleton, housing assistance groups have seen a major influx in their funding amid the pandemic from both state and federal COVID-19 relief dollars. However, even with this increase in funding, helping individuals out of situations of homelessness has been challenging.
“We’re in this really unprecedented moment where we have on the order of 170 people who are matched to the housing subsidy and have no unit to move into,” Middleton said. “They have done all the work and jumped through all the hoops to get rental assistance, but they can’t get a lease, either because the landlords don’t want to rent or the rents are going up. It’s really, really crushing people.”
The economic burdens of COVID-19 have fallen disproportionately on urban areas with a higher proportion of residents experiencing poverty, Middleton said, while “if you look at the stock market, rich people got richer over the last few years.”
DataHaven uses a “Five Connecticuts” framework to classify towns as wealthy, suburban, rural, urban periphery or urban core. Although all towns experienced the challenges of COVID-19, urban core cities like New Haven tended to witness higher rates of housing and food insecurity. Urban core residents also reported greater feelings of anxiety — 18 percent of urban core adults, compared to 13 percent statewide — and depression — 15 percent of urban core adults, compared to 10 percent statewide.
Professor of Urbanism Elihu Rubin told the News that these findings reflect long-standing inequities between cities and wealthier suburbs.
“Connecticut as a state may have some of the highest income inequality in the country because we have so many wealthy suburban or ex-urban areas, and the cities have just been more economically and socially diverse,” Rubin said. “Cities are the places that have been the most responsible for affordable housing. The cities have been the places most responsible for social services.”
COVID-19 “reinforc[ed] and even reproduc[ed]” these inequalities. Rubin noted that there are many efforts to address these inequities, from expanding affordable housing in suburbs to pooling regional tax revenues.
Among urban core cities, New Haven is in some ways comparatively well-off. While one in five surveyed New Haven residents reported that their financial situation had worsened since Feb. 2020, this was closer to one in three in Hartford.
Abraham explained that New Haven might be “a little bit more prosperous” because of its proximity to New York and because of its educational and healthcare sectors. But he cautioned that these numbers do not paint a complete picture.
“New Haven has a fairly large affluent population in the East Rock and Westville neighborhoods especially,” he said. “That kind of masks a little bit of the disparity in New Haven. So New Haven as a whole may look like it’s fairly better off. But a lot of it is due to the fact that we have such affluent neighborhoods in the city, combined with more distressed or disadvantaged neighborhoods.”
DataHaven has conducted five of these statewide surveys in the last 10 years. In 2021, researchers held phone interviews with 9,139 randomly-selected residents. Abraham explained that the survey questions are mainly taken from large national surveys. This means that the questions have been “tested and validated,” and that the results can be compared with regional and national data.
The nonprofit also worked with an advisory council of over 300 organizations to identify which questions would be useful for community partners. Abraham said that a range of institutions — including hospitals, nonprofits and municipalities — can all use this survey data in grant applications, goal-setting, reporting, policy testimony and more.
“What [DataHaven] did and has done for some years now is to provide us with the facts, from surveys, from interviews, looking at what the state of things is in New Haven,” Bonita Grubbs, executive director of Christian Community Action, told the News. “Having that information coupled with our experience in our service provision guides our work each and every day.”
DataHaven conducted its first Community Wellbeing Survey in 2012.