Poverty hitting 50-year highs in N.J.

News Source: Philadelphia Inquirer

Poverty in New Jersey has reached levels not seen in 50 years, as more than two million people from Sussex to Cape May Counties founder in a deepening struggle to keep themselves and their families fed, housed, and healthy.

The troubling findings, part of a report spotlighting poverty in 2011, were released Sunday by Legal Services of New Jersey’s Poverty Research Institute. The report is called “Poverty Benchmarks 2013.”

While the recession ended in 2009, the report shows, the misery it wrought – most notably upon children – has continued. That New Jersey is ranked by the U.S. Census as the third-richest state after Maryland and Alaska, with a median annual income of more than $67,000, makes the harsh level of need all the more striking.

“It’s extraordinarily sad,” said Melville Miller Jr., president of Legal Services of New Jersey, which provides free civil legal assistance to low-income New Jerseyans. “People are hurting.”

And, Miller said, with cuts to the federal safety net on the horizon – most notably to food stamps in November – the situation will not improve soon.

Statewide, the official poverty rate of 10.4 percent in 2011 was the highest recorded since the early 1960s, the report says.

Rather than measure poverty with the decades-old federal poverty level, set at $22,811 for a family of four in 2011, however, Legal Services researchers determined that real poverty begins at double the federal level.

Experts consider that a more realistic method to determine need.

The federal poverty level does not take into account real costs, including child care and health care, experts say. Nor does it include the cost of living in an expensive state like New Jersey, where rents of $700 to $1,000 are common even for run-down apartments in Camden, according to Ann Gorman, deputy director of South Jersey Legal Services.

Defining the poverty level at 200 percent of poverty, then, the proportion of people in poverty in New Jersey increased from almost 24 percent to nearly 25 percent between 2010 and 2011, according to the report, which uses data from the census and other sources. In Burlington County, where jobs are scarce, and many people lost homes to foreclosure, poverty rose from 15.1 to 17.5 percent, while in Camden County poverty remained the same; in Gloucester County, it dipped slightly. Cumberland County worsened to become, with Passaic County, one of the two poorest places in the state.

The Legal Services report shows more than 700,000 children, a record number, lived in poverty in 2011.

Child poverty rates were highest in Camden, where 79 percent of all children were below 200 percent of the federal poverty level in 2011.

Municipal poverty was highest in Camden, where nearly 65 percent of the total population lived in households with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

At the same time, the mean hourly wage in the state declined between 2009 and 2011 – from $25.15 to $24.78, the report found.

Many New Jersey households experienced hunger between 2009 and 2011, with 12.3 percent of households reporting that they had too little food at some point during that period.

While unemployment hurt thousands, even those with jobs were at a loss: More than 200,000 state residents who lived below the federal poverty line in 2011 engaged in part- or full-time work, the report says.

“No matter where you are in New Jersey – rural, suburban, or urban – poverty is nightmarish and all around,” said Adele LaTourette, director of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition.


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