Financial peril common in state, report says

Nearly 40 percent of Connecticut residents are on the brink of financial calamity, according to a report released today by a nationwide public-policy group that tracks efforts to improve conditions for the poor and middle class.

The Washington-based Corporation for Enterprise Development said in its annual Assets & Opportunity Scorecard that Connecticut falls in the middle among all states in terms of how residents are faring financially. Yet, though the state has some of the best policies to help working families, the percentage of Connecticut residents who are only a layoff or health crisis away from serious financial difficulty increased by more than 2 percentage points last year, the group said.

"Five years into the economic recovery, millions of American families are still treading water in the deep end," the report said.

The report defined families as being financially insecure if they lacked savings to cover expenses at the federal poverty level for more than three months after a personal emergency. A family of four in Connecticut would need nearly $6,000 to pay for basic expenses over a three-month period, but 39.3 percent of the population lacks any such cushion, according to the report.

"Growing numbers of middle class households in our state fall short of that amount," the report said.

Deborah Monahan, executive director of the Thames Valley Council for Community Action, said Tuesday she has noted a growing population in eastern Connecticut requiring assistance in the past few years. Last heating season, for instance, more than 10,000 applications were taken for energy assistance, and this season - with two more months left in the high-demand period - the agency has seen 8,000 applications.

Even people with full-time jobs are having a hard time making ends meet, she said, as the cost of food, fuel, health care and insurance continues to erode paychecks.

"It's very symptomatic of the shrinking middle class," Monahan said.

Compounding the problem, she added, is the soft job market locally and the many layoffs seen at pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc., the region's two casinos and other major employers.

"It does put people into a tailspin," she said. "It is very distressing to be employed 10, 15, 20 years and then to see yourself all of a sudden unemployed."

Kristin Lawton, communications director for the policy group, said Connecticut numbers were derived from a Census Bureau survey that looks at families' liquid assets, including money in bank accounts, stocks and even retirement assets such as 401(k)s. The numbers do not take into account assets such as real estate or business ownership.

"It's a pretty scary situation," Lawton said.

Connecticut ranked fifth among all states in its policy response to the current economic climate, according to the report, with the fourth lowest percentage of households in poverty. Its overall state rating last year, despite the decline in residents' ability to fight through hard times, improved from 29th to 25th.

But Connecticut residents also had the highest average credit card debt, more than $14,000, and also fell near the bottom in terms of housing affordability. The divide between whites and minorities in terms of home ownership was fourth highest in the nation.

"We need to stand behind asset-building tools that help working families to make ends meet, like Connecticut's Earned Income Tax Credit," Ellen Shemitz, executive director for the advocacy group Connecticut Voices for Children, said in a statement. "Connecticut should follow the lead of New York state in establishing a Child Tax Credit, which would improve tax fairness for families and help keep kids out of poverty."

Other key findings of the report were:

• Connecticut's poverty rate was 10.4 percent, better than the national rate of 14.7 percent. But the state's asset poverty rate was 30.2 percent, higher than the nationwide rate of 25.4 percent.

• College debt was up 8 percent in the most recent nationwide figures. Students now are nearly $30,000 in debt, on average, by the time they graduate.

• Only 44 percent of employers nationwide are funding retirement plans, down from 47 percent a few years earlier.

• Minority households are closing the gap nationally, but have only about 10 percent the net worth of white households.

• Minorities' rate of homeownership is 46 percent nationally, versus 72 percent for whites.

• Connecticut is one of only eight states that has adopted at least half of the policies identified as supporting family financial security. The others are New York, Maryland, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Maine, Washington and Minnesota.

l.howard@theday.com

Connecticut report highlights

39% - Households financially insecure

49% - Consumers with subprime credit

9% - Residents in low-wage jobs

37% -Adults with at least a four-year degree

Source: Corporation for Enterprise Development

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