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Reading the governor's press releases, Connecticut might think that preservation of farmland and prevention of "suburban sprawl" are compelling issues. Riding the train from Greenwich to Hartford gives a contrary impression. Thanks to Amtrak, such a trip is still possible for those who can deal with the bumps, shuttered washrooms, and clogged toilets.
The train windows remain clear enough to reveal a stunning and almost unbroken panorama of economic collapse - ruined and abandoned factories and commercial properties occupying what might be considered prime locations, adjacent to the railroad and highways and served by all utilities.
If there was really any money in agriculture in Connecticut, hundreds of large farms could fit on the abandoned property that is already cleared as well as inside the abandoned buildings that remain structurally sound. Of course the abandoned properties could be redeveloped as housing as well.
The ruin may be most striking in Bridgeport. While the call letters of the city's radio station, WICC, were chosen for "Industrial Capital of Connecticut," today the "I" would have to stand for "impoverished." New Haven, Meriden, and Hartford, once industrial powerhouses themselves, now consider it a triumph just to tear down a ruined building. Even fairly prosperous towns along the railroad, like Milford and Wallingford, have such embarrassing eyesores.
In any case "farmland preservation" - government's paying farmers for the "development rights" to their property - doesn't make agriculture profitable or even sustainable. It only lets farmers withdraw their equity from the land without having to sell it for housing, and thus makes suburban and rural towns even more residentially exclusive, restricts the housing market, and supports prices for those who have housing while driving up costs for those who don't. Most advocates of "farmland preservation" care far less about sustaining agriculture than about keeping new people out.
And while Connecticut's industrial decline is no secret, riding the rails through the core of that decline explodes the premises behind "farmland preservation" and complaints of "suburban sprawl." The ride shows that Connecticut's problem is not preserving farms or stopping "sprawl"; instead the problem is urban rot.
Since the infrastructure remains - including the railroad, which, while creaky, is still more convenient than cars and buses for getting to New York, Boston, and Philadelphia - what has made Connecticut's cities so unattractive?
For starters are the schools, the worst in the state. But schools are only reflections of a community's population, and city populations are of course overwhelmingly poor and fatherless. So the big policy question has to be: A half century into the "War on Poverty," with government now providing the poor with food, rent, heat, medical insurance, social workers, ever-longer unemployment compensation, disability stipends, and lately even cellphones, what is making and keeping people poor if not government itself?
If the ruined factories along the rail line hint that the answer involves the loss of low-skilled, entry-level industrial jobs, couldn't government find similarly basic work for people to learn with in lieu of unearned welfare benefits? Thousands might be employed perpetually just cleaning up the trash along the rail line and the streets in every town.
Couldn't government enforce standards in school so that people emerged with enough skills to make their own way? Skilled people still might find good employment in any number of endeavors - like modernizing the whole Northeast rail network. After all, "work, not welfare" used to be a populist and liberal objective.
Right now the only consolation of riding the rails through the ruin of Connecticut may be that at least we still have the world's best imperial wars and public employee pension systems.