NORWALK: Fairfield County may be associated with affluence, but with pockets of poverty scattered throughout, the issues affecting the nation are no less an issue in Connecticut, according to a new study of the area.
The region's income inequality ranks first in the 100 largest U.S. metro areas when comparing incomes of top and bottom earners.
The study was conducted by the Norwalk-based Fairfield County Community Foundation and DataHaven, a New Haven-based nonprofit that collects, interprets and shares public data. It assessed the overall well being of Fairfield County residents - bringing to light towns, neighborhoods and issues that social services agencies had only previously heard about anecdotally.
"I think some of this we always knew, but we never had any concrete data to back it up," said Juanita James, president and CEO of the Fairfield County's Community Foundation. "This now allows us to illustrate to donors what the scope of the issues actually are, and they can see where their philanthropy will be most effective."
The study, which covers a number of issues, highlights Fairfield County's shrinking middle class.
The number of people living in middle-income neighborhoods has declined 16 percent, while the number of people living in poor neighborhoods has grown 3.5 times since 1980.
Using factors like income, commute time, housing cost burden - the proportion of housing costs to income - and overall feelings of contentment as assessed by the survey, DataHaven was able to produce a Community Wellbeing Index.
While it came as no surprise that Bridgeport ranked the lowest on this part of the survey - it has the highest housing cost burden, underemployment and obesity rates - Nancy von Euler, vice president of programs for the community foundation, said she was surprised to see Stratford, a seemingly well-off suburb, ranked second lowest in overall well-being.
"I think that came as a surprise," von Euler said. "When we think of the places that have these issues like poverty and others, we tend to think of the cities."
The region's income inequality ranks first in the 100 largest U.S. metro areas. In 2014, the top 5 percent of earners in Fairfield County made an average of $558,970 per year, nearly 18 times the $31,330 that the bottom 20 percent earn.
Despite the issues highlighted by the report, the typical Fairfield County resident reports levels of health and personal well-being that are better than those of the typical U.S. or Connecticut resident.
Fairfield County's death rate is lower than national averages, adult smoking rates are declining and health insurance coverage has dramatically improved, according to the survey. From 2000 to 2014, 100 percent of the net population growth in Fairfield County is attributed to the increase in foreign-born population.
Mark Abraham, executive director of DataHaven, said developing the report allowed local agencies to identify links between the well-being of residents and the places they live.
"Looking beyond typical measures like income levels or unemployment rates, the Community Wellbeing Index reveals a much more uneven distribution of opportunities in areas such as a neighborhood walkability, economic development, public health and education," Abraham said. "The impact that these barriers to opportunity have on overall well-being and happiness will serve as a call to action for many groups working to improve Fairfield County's diverse neighborhoods and towns.""fairfield>