EDISON – There are more New Jerseyans living in poverty – including many dealing at times with hunger pains – than at any time in the state’s history.
A new, far-reaching study by poverty experts at Legal Services of New Jersey says that close to 900,000 are mired in poverty, and all indications are that poverty’s tightening grip on one of the nation’s richest states is not likely to loosen any time soon.
In fact, despite the much-publicized end of the recession, more people in New Jersey who once deemed themselves to be in the middle class are continuing to sink into poverty. And unemployment essentially continues unabated, striking especially hard the current generation of young New Jerseyans 18 to 24 years of age.
Those are some of the hard statistics and dire prospects made public today by the Poverty Research Institute of Legal Services of New Jersey in its annual report, “Poverty Benchmarks 2012.”
The study is a virtual compendium of poverty’s impact and inroads in New Jersey. Its primary focus is on the plight of the impoverished in 2010, the last year for which Census figures are available. But it also reports that, when the Census releases its finding for 2011 in five months, the run-up of poverty likely will have continued.
A key finding is that there were nearly 885,000 New Jersey residents, including almost 300,000 children, locked in the ranks of the impoverished as their incomes fell below the standard that the federal government uses to define poverty. That gauge, known as the federal poverty level or FPL, in 2010 set the poverty threshold at $10,830 for a single person, $14,570 for a family of two, $18,310 for a family of three, and $22,050 for a family of four.
Arguably, that 885,000 figure doesn’t come close to capturing the true extent of poverty in New Jersey. The actual total may be closer to more than two million people. That’s because social scientists and others, including the Poverty Research Institute, maintain that the true extent of poverty is not accurately reflected when the seemingly low-ball dollar threshold of the FPL is used as the defining measure. Part of the rationale is that the real cost of living in New Jersey is much higher than the FPL.
A more widely-accepted barometer of poverty, especially in high cost-of-living states such as New Jersey, is usually seen as at least 200 percent of or double the FPL. At 200 percent, for example, a family of three making under $36,620 in New Jersey would be defined as impoverished.
The Poverty Research Institute’s 100-page report notes that there are 2,054,000 New Jerseyans living below 200 percent of the FPL, including 620,000 children. In short, almost one of every four New Jersey residents was caught in the throes of poverty in 2010.
Regardless of what calculation is used, the totals are eye-opening. Even at the lower FPL range, the number of those in poverty in the Garden State actually broke a record that had stood since 1993.
“These numbers are staggering,” says Legal Services president Melville D. Miller, Jr. “So many people are spending much of their life just barely surviving, and it’s unrealistic to believe this won’t have a significant long-range impact on their children.”
Adds Allan Lichtenstein of LSNJ’s Poverty Research Institute, the report’s co-author, “What’s particularly disturbing is that poverty continues to fester in our state even well after the Great Recession ended.” He further notes, “This study is extremely important for the public and policymakers to understand the depth of poverty in our state.”
PRI’s Shivi Prasad, who also co-authored the report, puts the matter most succinctly: “People are hurting. They need help.”
In no way is the battered economy out of the woods, the study warns, pointing out that two and a half years after the end of the recession the New Jersey economy remains locked in lackluster growth, that the “high and disparate unemployment rates that persisted through 2011” suggest that the poverty rate for 2011 will “once again be notably high.”
The Census is not scheduled to release the 2011 poverty statistics until this coming September.
Figures for the last three years recorded by the Census show the progressive arc of poverty. The rate was 8.7 percent in 2008, moved up to 9.4 percent in 2009 and then jumped to 10.3 percent in 2010.
As poverty levels surged upward, the numbers could have been even more devastating had not such public assistance programs as the Earned Income Tax Credit and food stamps, among others, been available, the poverty study maintains.
The tone of the report is set at its outset:
“Although the official conclusion of the great recession was June 2009, its consequences have continued to affect a large segment of New Jersey’s population, and especially more vulnerable groups. Its impacts have been particularly severe for young adults, Hispanics and female-headed families with children. . . . In addition, high poverty rates for blacks, children, the disabled, the elderly, and those with the least educational attainment continue to be an issue of concern, while the ranks of the middle class continued to shrink.”
Examining statistics at the county and municipality levels, the study underscores the broad swath poverty has cut across the state.
The study points to five counties – Cumberland, Hudson, Passaic, Essex and Atlantic – in which more than 30 percent of the inhabitants were living below 200 percent of the FPL. Ocean, Mercer, Salem, Union and Cape May were not far behind.
And in nine municipalities – Camden, Lakewood, Passaic, Atlantic City, New Brunswick, Bridgeton, Paterson, Trenton and Newark – at least 50 percent of the residents were living below 200 percent of the FPL. Among those not far behind were Perth Amboy, Plainfield, Pleasantville, Elizabeth, Union City, West New York and Orange.
Numbers make headlines, but behind the numbers are real life stories of people in New Jersey trying to cope on meager incomes, and constantly concerned that their eligibility for welfare, disability benefits and other public aid programs might be cut or reduced. Samson Carr, a blind man in Belle Meade, for example, talks about what it’s like to live on a gross income of about $1,400 a month, when paying some $600 of that just for rent.
“You can survive in poverty but that’s all you do – survive,” he says. “We have to make do; some months are harder than others. As far as going out, vacations and all those things, that’s out of the question. We buy what food we can, things that you are assured of having some leftovers. You know, I call it the poverty diet.”
And then there’s Felice in Newark, a 50 year-old woman beset with all sorts of physical problems, including recovery from brain surgery. For her, worrying about meeting the rent or having money left over for food from her $1,000 a month income is a virtually constant mental struggle. As she confided months ago in an interview, “My life is very distressing. I do a lot of crying. I don’t understand why this has happened to me.”
Essentially, the new study says that there are hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans in much the same boat as Carr and Felice.
As Prasad puts it, “People are poor usually because they don’t have a choice.”
Perhaps one of the most gripping findings of the study is that between 2008 and 2010 more low-income people – 380,000 households, or about 12 percent of all the homes in the state – had difficulty putting enough food on the table because of insufficient funds than at any time during the previous dozen years. “Food insecurity” – in everyday terms, hunger – “became an enduring problem when the recession began and has continued to increase ever since,” the report states. In short, the end of the recession for many poor people and their children has not put more food in their bellies.
The sixth annual study on poverty says a “more coordinated and comprehensive approach” by state government in dealing with the issues of poverty is “more than ever vital to the safety and well-being” of New Jersey’s poor people.
The report includes a full section reviewing, analyzing and recommending changes in key government programs to help the needy.
Some of the major statistical points and findings underscored in the study include:
- More than half of the unemployed in New Jersey were out of work in 2010 for more than six months, and what little job growth occurred was in relatively low-paying service industry jobs.
- The hemorrhaging of manufacturing jobs continued. While the unemployment rate was up for the state’s three major ethnic or racial groups, blacks were hit the hardest.
- Since 2006, the number of those 18 to 24 years of age living in households with incomes below 200 percent of the FPL jumped by nearly 40 percent – a larger increase than for any other age bracket in the state.
- Just as a year earlier, the poverty rate for Hispanics in 2010 was higher than for blacks, though blacks were impacted the most by the rise in unemployment.
- While the poverty rate was highest for black children, the rate for Hispanic children is increasing more rapidly.
- The poverty rate for working women with families continued to rise, just as it did during the recession.
- There are large disparities among counties and municipalities in the percentage of poor people living there.
- Health insurance coverage for children showed a marked improvement in 2010 but the number of adults without coverage rose substantially, encompassing more than 650,000 people below 200 percent of the FPL.
- The number of low-income people getting food stamps nearly doubled. As of the end of last year, there were nearly 400,000 household receiving food stamps. At the same time, though, there was little movement in the number enrolled in the school lunch program, resulting in New Jersey’s participation rate going from 46th to 48th worst in the nation.
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