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Elected officials need to pay attention to high unemployment rates here

As we approach a new election season, there's another good topic to put on the discussion agenda: the region's high unemployment rate.

According to the state Department of Labor's most recent monthly, town-by-town breakdown of unemployment rates, for November, New London has one of the highest in the state: 7.6%. Norwich is close behind, at 7.1%.

Only a few other municipalities have higher rates, including Waterbury at 7.7% and Hartford and Ansonia at 8%. Bridgeport is also 7.6%.

I don't hear a lot of conversation about this in the region's politics. That should change. It's not enough to say Electric Boat is on an epic hiring spree, when clearly so many residents of the region's poorest cities are not benefitting.

It also seems unclear how New London and Norwich residents are going to benefit from all the millions being spent by the administration of Gov. Ned Lamont on construction at State Pier in New London, where no requirements were made for local hiring.

I am no economist, but in browsing through some historical data on unemployment in the state, the current highs for New London and Norwich, always above those of surrounding towns, are still an anomaly compared with other urban areas in past recessions and recoveries. New London is not usually so close to the high rates in the state's larger, poor cities.

Unemployment above statewide averages is going to have lasting impact on the entire region's economy. Politicians need to address it.

I spoke about the high rates in New London and Norwich with Fred Carstensen, professor of finance at the University of Connecticut's School of Business, who put the region's problems in the perspective of the state's overall recovery, which has lagged behind many other states.

The state's overall unemployment rate of 6% is higher than the 3.9% for the rest of the country.

Carstensen identified some of the issues likely driving the high rates in New London and Norwich, where the coronavirus pandemic has negatively impacted the service economy. The pandemic-related slowdown at the casinos is likely having an impact for those living in the region's two largest cities.

The impact on other service industry jobs, like restaurants, also likely is being felt in those communities.

The Crystal Mall, a retail center for the region, is crippled by divided ownership and many closed stores. A slowdown in tourism, especially extended stays with hotel use, is likely another important factor.

Indeed, Carstensen said, there are likely lower traffic counts on Interstate 95 east of New Haven that could be a factor in unemployment rates in the region's two large cities.

Eastern Connecticut has for too long been a political backwater in Connecticut, left on its own to struggle through recessions, dry periods for federal shipbuilding contracts, the loss of pharmaceutical industry jobs, increased casino competition in New England and now a crippling pandemic.

I hope the region's economic infrastructure can be an important part of the discussions of the coming election cycle.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@thetheday.com

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