Poverty numbers are grim in N.J.

By Alfred Lubrano
Inquirer Staff Writer
Philadelphia Inquirer

A record 885,000 were below the poverty line, a report said. Young adults were especially hard hit.

More New Jersey residents lived in poverty in 2010 than ever before, according to a report released Sunday.

A record 885,0000 people in the state, nearly 300,000 of them children, lived below the poverty line, say authors of an analysis by the Legal Services of New Jersey Poverty Research Institute in Edison, which is based on the most recent numbers available.

Overall, the poverty rate increased from 8.7 percent in 2008 to 9.4 percent in 2009, and finally to 10.3 percent in 2010. (By comparison, the percentage of Pennsylvanians living in poverty jumped from 11.6 in 2007 to 13.4 percent in 2010, according to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.)

The report offers a portrait of a New Jersey devastated by recession and unemployment, particularly among adults aged 18 to 24, whose jobless rate was nearly 15 percent, compared with 9 percent for all adults in the state. More than half the total unemployed population of New Jersey had been out of work for more than six months.

In addition, it shows that one-eighth of New Jersey households – about 380,000 – had difficulty at some time between 2008 and 2010 providing enough food for family members because of lack of resources. It was the highest level in 12 years.

The median household income in the state fell for the second straight year in 2010, according to the findings: from $71,764 in 2008; to $69,571 in 2009; to $67,681 in 2010 – its lowest point in six years.

“Disturbing, startling, surprising – those are words to describe this report,” Melville Miller, president of Legal Services of New Jersey, said in an interview Friday. “It demonstrates the overall loss of jobs, and the slow recovery from the recession. The report shows more and more people dropping out of the middle class to a place where they are now scrambling every day.”

The report, titled “Poverty Benchmarks 2012” and compiled from U.S. Census’ American Community Survey figures, among other sources, is not without puzzling aspects.

Specifically, it shows that poverty levels in Camden improved during the recession, with rates falling from 40.5 percent to 36.4 percent.

“I’m not sure why that would be,” said Paul Jargowsky, professor of public policy at Rutgers-Camden. It’s possible that many poor people simply moved out because their homes had been demolished, Jargowsky speculated. “This is a surprise, though,” he said.

‘Pushed out’

Ujwala Samant, director of programs and services for the Food Bank of South Jersey, agreed with Jargowsky, saying that the Legal Services report may have uncovered a phenomenon her agency has recently detected: that gentrification is changing the level of poverty in Camden.

“The poor get pushed out as the city razes homes to make way for more middle-income housing,” Samant said.

That’s why the Legal Services report is showing upticks in poverty in Mount Laurel, Cherry Hill, and Pennsauken, Samant suggested. “People in poverty in Camden City are moving to these new locations.”

Camden still registered the highest percentage of children living in poverty in the state, a rate of 50.5 percent, the report shows.

By the Food Bank’s reckoning, the number of people living in poverty in Camden County increased by 2 percentage points – to 12 percent – between 2010 and 2011, while the number in Salem County increased by 1 percentage point, to 11 percent. In Gloucester County, the number living in poverty actually decreased by 1.5 percentage points – to 6 percent – and remained level at 5 percent in Burlington County.

The South Jersey municipality that registered one of the largest increases in its poverty rate was Bridgeton in Cumberland County, which went from 24.9 percent poverty in 2007 to 30.1 percent in 2010, according to the Legal Services report. Overall poverty in Cumberland County is currently 17 percent, the highest in the state, Census figures show.

“I don’t have any magic answers for why we’re poor,” said Kim Wood, deputy county administrator.

More realistic measure

The report’s authors identified poverty using the federal guidelines, which in 2010 set the 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.

Unlike many other studies of poverty, though, the Legal Services report includes statistics based on 200 percent of, or twice, the poverty level. This is generally considered to be a more realistic measure of those living in need, experts say. People living between 100 percent and 200 percent of poverty are considered to be the working poor.

The report notes that 2,054,000 state residents – nearly one in four – lived below 200 percent of the federal poverty level in 2010, including 620,000 children.

It also describes changes made to the state-funded general-assistance welfare program, which serves individuals or couples without children in need of income and work supports. The Christie administration recently changed the program’s qualifying criteria, which caused thousands to be denied enrollment and dramatically reduced the number of applicants.

That’s not because need has diminished, according to the report. It’s because the administration now requires that people seeking aid first attend job training or offer proof of an active job search for four consecutive weeks. Advocates for the poor say this presents an insurmountable obstacle for many.

“Some of the new policies … will harm the most vulnerable residents of the state,” the report concludes.

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