I am hearing people talk about how the economy is getting better. I think those who are touting the recovery may not be personally feeling the effects of rising prices, unemployment, loss of medical benefits (and financial ruin due to the cost of medical care) and low-wage and part-time only employment opportunities.
on September 08, 2013 at 6:30 AM, updated September 08, 2013 at 7:09 AM
By Brent Johnson/The Star-Ledger
TRENTON — Poverty in New Jersey continued to grow even as the national recession lifted, reaching a 52-year high in 2011, according to a report released today.
The annual survey by Legal Services of New Jersey found 24.7 percent of the state’s population — 2.1 million residents — was considered poor in 2011. That’s a jump of more than 80,000 people — nearly 1 percent higher than the previous year and 3.8 percent more than pre-recession levels.
“This is not just a one-year or five-year or 10-year variation,” said Melville D. Miller Jr., the president of LSNJ, which gives free legal help to low-income residents in civil cases. “This is the worst that it’s been since the 1960 Census.”
And it may get worse: The report warned Census figures for 2012 to be released this month may be higher. Those numbers are expected to show some of the impact from Hurricane Sandy, which took a bite out of the state’s economy and destroyed a large amount of affordable housing.
The numbers for New Jersey — one of the wealthiest states in the nation — mirror a national trend. In 2011, the federal poverty rate was the largest it had been in 18 years, according to the Congressional Research Service.
POVERTY RATES BY COUNTY
Poverty rates in each of New Jersey’s 21 counties, according to Legal Services’ report:
• Atlantic 32.4
• Bergen 18.4
• Burlington 17.5
• Camden 27.7
• Cape May 25.9
• Cumberland 37
• Essex 35.7
• Gloucester 18.5
• Hudson 35.9
• Hunterdon 10.9
• Mercer 22.7
• Middlesex 21.6
• Monmouth 18.4
• Morris 14.2
• Ocean 27.4
• Passaic 37.1
• Salem 30.8
• Somerset 12.7
• Sussex 15.2
• Union 27
• Warren 19
“The Great Recession was the worst major economic event since the early ’30s,” Miller said. “It’s taken longer for the U.S. to come out of it.”
The report — the seventh issued by Legal Services — defines being poor in New Jersey as a family of three making less than $37,060. That’s twice the federal poverty rate because New Jersey’s cost of living is among the highest in the nation.
The report found:
• A record high of more than 630,000 children — 31.2 percent — lived in a household defined as poor.
• The percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds living in poverty rose from 26.9 in 2007 to 32.8 in 2011.
• Of families headed by single mothers, 22 percent were poor compared to 3.6 percent of families headed by a married couple.
• African-Americans and Hispanics had poverty rates at least three times higher than whites.
• Boosted by the consistency of Social Security payments, the percentage of elderly who were poor dropped from 26.7 in 2007 to 26.2 in 2011.
• Six counties — Passaic, Cumberland, Hudson, Essex, Atlantic and Salem — had more than 30 percent of their population living in poverty in 2011.
• Among cities, nearly 65 percent of Camden residents lived in poverty, and 79 percent of children lived in poor households. Poverty topped 50 percent in Passaic, Lakewood, Paterson, Trenton and Newark.
Experts say a combination of factors contributed to the spike in poverty, including the persistence of high unemployment. New Jersey’s unemployment rate dipped slightly in July to 8.6 percent but that’s higher than the national rate of 7.3 and nearly double the state’s rate of 4.6 at the start of the recession.
“Families continue to struggle,” said Cecilia Zalkind, president of Advocates for Children of New Jersey. “Improvements in the economic downturn have not yet reached the low-income family.”
Zalkind said it’s much harder for someone to find a full-time job with health benefits today, and Miller noted the jobs market has shifted away from higher paying manufacturing jobs.
“There are a lot of temporary, part-time jobs,” Zalkind said. “Compound that with the cost of living in New Jersey, and I think it’s a significant struggle for families. It’s alarming certainly.”
While saying there is “no silver bullet,” Miller suggests the federal and state government should “rethink or retool or re-energize their antipoverty initiatives,” focusing on improving programs for health, housing and food stamps.
The report also suggests raising the minimum wage, saying the value of New Jersey’s minimum wage has diminished over the years.
Voters in November will decide whether to hike the minimum wage in the state from $7.25 to $8.25 an hour and install automatic yearly increases afterward. The measure is on the ballot as a constitutional amendment pushed by the Democratic-led Legislature over the objections of Republican Gov. Chris Christie.
State Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), the Democratic nominee battling Christie in this year’s gubernatorial race, said the poverty numbers are an example of how the governor’s policies haven’t worked.
“This report is a damning commentary on his failed conservative economic philosophy that protects millionaires from paying their fair share at the expense of everyone else,” she said. “He does not care about the consequences of these decisions for working-class families in New Jersey.”
Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for Christie’s campaign, hit back.
“Barbara Buono and her allies in the Legislature failed working families by walking away from Governor Christie’s compromise proposal to raise the minimum wage and increase the earned income tax credit,” Roberts said. “No amount of distortions or revisionist history can paper over her hypocrisy and failure.”
The report highlights the story of Joseph Karecky, who uses a wheelchair because of nerve damage. He lives in Bayonne in Hudson County, one of the four poorest counties in New Jersey since 2006.
After being laid off, the report said, Karecky survived on rental assistance, $200 a month in food stamps, and $147 a month in cash through General Assistance.
“Pride, you kinda got to take it and throw it out the window,” he said in the report. “I mean, you can’t really think on those levels, you know? I mean, you have to try to get help, or any help that’s necessary, if you need it.”
Karecky, who could not be reached for comment, lives in a modest apartment with heat in only one room, furnished with things from his childhood or pieces he has received for free, according to the report.
“I have a roof over my head,” he said. “The rent is being paid. I have just enough food to last me through the month. The electricity is on.”