DARIEN — As the summer sun sets on each day of his six-day, 126.5-mile walking excursion through Connecticut, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy’s legs are throbbing in pain and in “true revolt” — nothing that can’t be fixed by an extra strength Tylenol.
But through the perpetual motion of his gray Nikes pounding the pavement, grass and sand, he has been consistently exposed to a number of working-class voices, from people who work full-time jobs and still can’t pay their bills — what Murphy, considers part of “the working poor.”
Murphy, D-Conn. , ended his fifth day of walking by holding a town hall meeting at Tilley Pond Park on Friday. Flanked by his friend and colleague, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., who joined him for the final three miles of the day, Murphy emphasized, both at the town hall and on the road, how tough it is for some of the hard-working people he’s met throughout his journey to stay afloat financially.
“And the reality is, it’s worse in this state than almost anywhere else, because it’s a really high-cost state to live in,” Murphy said. “And so, if you’re making 15 dollars an hour, as a guy I met in Clinton is, you often actually can’t pay your bills. He’s got a bunch of kids.”
James, the man Murphy referenced from Clinton, hangs drywall full-time and still struggles to provide for his family, which includes one child who is blind and another who is autistic.
“Between the two (children), even 50 hours a week, couldn’t put food on the table for his kids,“ Murphy said. “And every week he was making a decision between being late on his rent, paying a utility bill or making sure that his kids had lunches for school, and he said to me ‘I’m making the same amount of money that I made when I was 15 years old,’ ” Murphy said.
Facing long commutes
A share of these “working poor” are employed in affluent Fairfield County towns like Greenwich, Darien, New Canaan and Westport, but as Murphy said, many can’t afford to live in the rich towns they work in, and as a result are forced to endure long commutes for low pay.
“What’s happening in Fairfield County is that very few people of limited means can afford to live in a place like Westport, but Westport needs people to work, and so the people who work in Westport live in Waterbury or live in Bridgeport, if they’re lucky,” Murphy said.
“One woman I talked to today, she has a commute every day of three hours from Bridgeport to New Haven and a lot of people go from Bridgeport down to Stamford or the city, Murphy said. “nd you know, I understand I’m in a place where there’s lots of people who have long commutes. They commute down to the city and come back.
“But it’s one thing to go down to the city for a job that pays you $100,000 a year or $75,000 a year,” Murphy said. “It’s another thing to commute three or four hours a day for a job that pays you minimum wage, but that’s what is happening a lot of times."
Long commutes are an issue Connecticut knows all too well. Staples High School Senior Fritz Schemel asked about the issues facing the commuter, citing the Metro-North Railroad delays.
“It is beyond essential, and it’s a big focus of my time and energy,” Himes said about improving transportation.
Not only did Himes say it was an inconvenience to commuters but he also mentioned how it adversely affects the economy vibrancy of the area, because business owners lament to him about not being able to get their employees to work. Himes added that it is not an issue that can be solved quickly, but rather incrementally.
“The reality is that we have underinvested in our infrastructure for decades, and it is going to take some time and it is going to be singles and doubles. If you’ve noticed the work on exit 14 on 95, and were going to need to keep doing this,” Himes said.
“You frankly need an all-the-above strategy,” Murphy said. “Some people say ‘Well, you shouldn’t be spending so much money on rebuilding 95.’ Well, I’m sorry, we have to. 95 is carrying three times as many cars as it was designed for. But you should also be spending money on making Metro-North more reliable.
“We should be creating more bike lanes and more pedestrian pathways,” Murphy said, “so that if people want to walk or bike to work, they can in a way that they frankly can’t right now.”
Calling for and investment of billions of dollars in infrastructure, Murphy believes it is not only justified, but a cornerstone for future job creation both statewide and nationally.
“So, you know, we’ve got to do all of the above, but it is going to require spending some money,” he said. “You’re talking hundreds of billions of dollars. I mean, it’s a huge number, but let’s put it in context: Today, the United States is spending about 2 to 3 percent of our total GDP on infrastructure, on roads and bridges. Europe, which is in a bigger economic mess than we are — they’re spending twice that — 6 percent of their GDP. China, which of course is trying to beat us economically, is spending four times that amount — they’re spending 12 percent of their GDP on building stuff,” Murphy said.
Murphy finishes out the final leg of his tour in Greenwich Saturday.