[Excerpt from feature article by Eddy Martinez]
ANSONIA — Ansonia and Derby share an industrial past. And although the two cities are frequent rivals when it comes to everything from economic development to high school football, they also share a common problem — poverty.
The two cities trail the state and the rest of the lower Naugatuck Valley communities in median income. And the gap is widening.
The 2022 Valley Community Index shows the two cities remain poorer than other municipalities in the area. DataHaven, a Connecticut-based nonprofit which has been compiling quality of life data in the state since 1992, showed the gap between the two cities' income levels compared to the state average have widened since 2000.
The report stated Ansonia has a median household income level of $53,709 compared to the Valley average of $81,633, which is slightly higher than the state average of $79,855 in 2020. Derby's median household income is at $58,534. In 2000, Ansonia's median household income was $43,026 and Derby's was $45,670. The state average was at $53,935.
"That means that percentage wise, the towns had 80 percent and 85 percent of the state income in 2000, respectively, and 67 percent and 73 percent of the state income in 2020," said Mark Abraham, executive director of DataHaven.
The two cities' struggles have different causes, but both communities' issues can be traced to the kinds of jobs available to residents, Abraham said.
"In Ansonia and Derby, residents are historically more likely to work in industries and occupations that pay lower wages and in industries that don’t require advanced degrees," he said. "Over the past few decades, wages have risen much more quickly in some industries than others."
Ansonia and Derby's income and poverty levels are a stark contrast to towns like Oxford and Shelton. At $106,089, Oxford has the highest median household income in the region. Shelton, at $98,873 isn't far behind. Beacon Falls ($83,841), Seymour ($80,396) and Naugatuck ($77,967) round out the Valley communities.
Low income levels have priced out residents as home and rental prices increased, Abraham said. The housing stock is older on average for the two cities and there is little room to build newer homes on large tracts of land. High income residents, he said, can look to neighboring municipalities such as Oxford and Southbury, which have those options.
The result according to Abraham, is residents have tended to sort themselves out by wealth. The report stated this not only applies to rich residents but also the middle class.
"In other words, there is probably more segregation by income level than there was two or three decades ago," Abraham said.
The report also highlighted some positives. The number of residents living in low income households in Ansonia decreased from 36 percent to 33 percent in the past three years, although that is still slightly higher than Derby's 32 percent rate.
Ansonia and Derby also are more diverse than ever before, but Black and Latino home-ownership rates are lower statewide than white residents according to the report. The two populations also face more racial disparities with employment. Oxford, and Shelton, the wealthiest municipalities listed, are also some of the whitest. Oxford's population is 89 percent white and Shelton's is 82 percent.
Ansonia, by comparison, is 62 percent white and Derby is 67 percent.
For their part, Valley officials are banking on an economic upswing in the region.
Sheila O'Malley, Ansonia's director of economic development, said city officials didn't dwell too much about the statistics since they knew the city is struggling. She pointed to the recent efforts at revitalizing the Ansonia Copper and Brass site as crucial for an economic turnaround.
Ansonia also has another obstacle according to O'Malley — a shortage of available space.
"Without an endless supply of space like Shelton, for example, you are limited in terms of economic growth," she said. "We definitely lack space in Ansonia. We are down to the Ansonia Copper and Brass piece and SHW. That is why we fought so hard to and continue to work towards owning the 60-plus acres. We want to create badly needed space for development."