The Struggle to Make a Living Wage

Marta Calderon often has to choose between paying her bills and buying much-needed medications.

Marta Calderon often has to choose between paying her bills and buying much-needed medications. Usually, it's her health that suffers. Marisa Penaloza, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Marisa Penaloza, NPR
Milagros "Millie" Detrez and her three sons -- from left, Anthony, 13, Alex, 11, and Andrew, 7

Milagros "Millie" Detrez and her three sons -- from left, Anthony, 13, Alex, 11, and Andrew, 7. Marisa Penaloza, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Marisa Penaloza, NPR
Bridgeport is at the edge of the 'Gold Coast' region i i

Bridgeport is at the edge of the "Gold Coast" region of wealthy commuter suburbs outside the New York City metro area. Doug Beach hide caption

itoggle caption Doug Beach
Bridgeport is at the edge of the 'Gold Coast' region

Bridgeport is at the edge of the "Gold Coast" region of wealthy commuter suburbs outside the New York City metro area.

Doug Beach
Anthony Bennett, senior pastor at Mount Aery Baptist Church in Bridgeport.

Anthony Bennett, senior pastor at Mount Aery Baptist Church in Bridgeport. Marisa Penaloza, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Marisa Penaloza, NPR

Connecticut is one of the richest states in the nation, full of wealthy suburbs along the Gold Coast of Long Island Sound and a "bedroom community" for the financial center of New York City.

But there has always been two Connecticuts. Contrast the wealthy suburb of New Canaan — annual median income more than $82,000 — with Bridgeport, the state's largest and poorest city with an annual median income under $36,976. These two Connecticuts are often in the same county, but they rarely cross paths.

Bridgeport was once a thriving industrial center with more than 500 factories. But like many industrial towns in New England, its factories closed, jobs were lost, and there was a surge in crime, unemployment, drugs and poverty. The factories moved to the South in the 1960s, and then overseas. Other factory towns re-invented themselves, like Stamford, which became a center for insurance and financial services.

But Bridgeport is trying to make a comeback, and new development is bringing new wealth to the city. But the city's working poor are finding that all that new development has yet to translate into a better life, and it's still hard to get by.

Making the comeback more difficult is a government and tax structure that leaves communities to fend for themselves, even though Bridgeport is part of Fairfield County, one of the richest counties in the nation. There's also a history of corruption and graft — former Mayor Joseph Ganim was convicted of bribery and racketeering, and went to prison. That culture of corruption is changing under new Mayor John Fabrizi.

Brian Langdon, the president and CEO of FSW, a large human-services agency in Connecticut, paints a more nuanced picture of the city. New housing and offices are indeed springing up — but one-third of the city's public housing has been torn down and not replaced, and one-third of students drop out of the city's underfunded schools.

Langdon says that hard-working people can still have a very fragile economic life.

"You have to earn almost $18 an hour to be able to afford a $1,000-a-month apartment," he says. "Minimum wage is $7.50, and the average money that hard-working, full-time people are getting is somewhere around $9 an hour — that is a long way from $17."

Marta Calderon, an activist in the Puerto Rican community, is one of those on the edge. For the last 22 years, she has worked at the Port of Bridgeport, working as a dispatcher for trucks that pick up pallets of bananas and pineapples coming in by boat from Colombia and Costa Rica.

Calderon's job has been cut back to 30 hours a week, dropping her salary to $21,000 a year. With that, she has to pay the rent, electric bill, phone bill and the expenses of taking care of her 11-year-old grandson. Plus, she needs $160 a month for eight medications for diabetes and heart disease. Her salary doesn't cover everything, and something has to give. Usually, that means her health suffers.

"I have to decide whether I want to get my prescriptions or buy food for the table," she says. Calderon avoids going to the doctor because it's a $20 co-pay. Calderon is often short of breath and can't walk long distances. She has no car, and when a co-worker can't drive her to work, she has to rely on Bridgeport's less-than-adequate public transportation system.

In a city that's two-thirds minority, some believe race has a lot to do with Bridgeport's problems.

"Perhaps if the skin color were a little different, and more reflective of Fairfield County, some of the issues would be addressed I believe much differently," says Anthony Bennett, senior pastor at Mount Aery Baptist Church.

Bennett is an outspoken advocate for the city's working poor. Given the challenges facing Bridgeport, Bennett sees activism as more important than prayer right now.

"Perhaps the perception is that we are talking about praising the Lord and going to heaven," he says. "No! God will take care of the sweet by-and-by — we want to help in the nasty now-and-now."

This four-part series was produced by NPR's Marisa Penaloza

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