Poverty has grown 45 percent over the last two decades with increases in 131 of the 169 Connecticut cities and towns, according to a new report released Friday.

“Connecticut has always had its fair share of poverty, but the current situation in our state is the worst that I’ve ever seen,” James Gatling, president of New Opportunities and chair of the Connecticut Association for Community Action, said at a Capitol press conference. “More and more people are coming through our doors who have never asked for assistance before. We call them the new poor.”

As of 2010, 21 percent or nearly 720,000, of Connecticut residents were living at, or near poverty levels. Of the 131 municipalities to see an increase in poverty, Columbia, a rural town in Tolland County, saw the largest percentage increase at 3,320 percent, according to the report. 

Avon, Chester, East Hampton and Sterling also saw significant increases all above 300 percent.

“The poverty issue is ubiquitous,” Fred Carstensen, director of the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis, said.  “Almost everywhere we have seen increases. Not just in our core cities where we tend to think about it, but everywhere, even in our wealthy communities.”

Over the past two decades, Connecticut’s three largest cities didn’t see an increase over 23 percent. More specifically the report found poverty increased 3 percent in Hartford, 17 percent in New Haven and 23 percent in Bridgeport.

“Connecticut is one of only three states in which the real income of the bottom 20 percent of households has gone down. Other states have higher rates of poverty, but their poorest households have not been getting poorer. Our poorest households have been getting poorer over time,” Carstensen said.

But there’s hope.

The report “offers both an explanation of how we got where we are as well as actionable short and long term recommendations that can be taken now to address the issue at no cost to the state,” Gatling said. 

The recommendations for limiting poverty, include implementing comprehensive economic development planning. Carstensen expressed the importance of creating new jobs for Connecticut’s young, educated population who have reaped the benefits of the billions of dollars Connecticut has put into its higher education system.

“We’ve made massive investments, billions of dollars, into higher education, and New York and Massachusetts and many other states are thanking us profoundly, because we haven’t created the jobs to keep those people here,” he said.

The second recommendation suggests aligning requirements with job-specific tasks, which include making sure employers are holding applicants to qualifications necessary for the job at hand, rather than generic requirements because “we think it’s good,” according to Carstensen.

Supporting education and training initiatives is the third step, and the final step is creating a data center to store, track and analyze economic and job related data.

“Connecticut is one of the most data challenged states in the country,” Carstensen said. “I had a colleague evaluate the quality of our data, administrative data, in Connecticut, he ranked us 47th nationally.”

Carstensen emphasized the need to obtain more data from agencies and municipalities to give lawmakers better information to formulate good public policy.

“Good policy begins with good data; thus, the state should establish a State Data Council to provide board oversight, articulation of policy standards, and leadership in addressing this challenge,” the report concluded.