Rich State, Poor State

How is it that a state as affluent as New Jersey has such a striking level of poverty? Steve Adubato discusses the issue with Melville D. Miller, Jr., president and general counsel for Legal Services of New Jersey.

The numbers are shocking. Nearly a quarter of the state’s population—or more than 2 million residents—are “poor,” according to a recent study by Legal Services of New Jersey (lsnj.org). In 2010 alone, more than 150,000 people here fell into poverty.  For the young, the statistics are even more alarming.  Nearly one-third of the state’s children live in poverty. From 2006 to 2010 the number of 18- to 24-year-olds who lived in a household defined as poor increased by nearly 40 percent.

How is poverty defined here? The state sets the bar at $36,620 for a family of three—twice the national threshold. Why? Because our cost of living is so much higher than virtually anywhere else in the nation. How is it that so many Jerseyans are falling into poverty in a state often ranked the second richest, behind Connecticut?

I discussed this troubling situation with Melville D. Miller Jr., president and general counsel for Legal Services of New Jersey and a longtime advocate for New Jersey’s poor.
  
ADUBATO:  Why are so many people living in poverty in New Jersey?

MILLER:  The immediate answer is that we are in the aftermath of the recession.  Although the recession formally ended three years ago, the effects lag, employment lags and, in particular, when a recession is caused by housing bubbles, as this one was, the implosion and the effects of one of those could last many more years. The other reason is that we still haven’t gotten a comprehensive strategy to deal with poverty.

ADUBATO: How should we deal with it?

MILLER: There has to be clear understanding and awareness of the extent of poverty in the state and in the country.  That is part of why we do this report—to shine light on it. Beyond that, government has to take poverty more seriously as a comprehensive problem…we need a group in government whose job is to deal with poverty as a whole, and not just deal with the symptoms.

ADUBATO: What’s the effect of 619,000 children living in poverty?

MILLER:  It puts pressure on every other system we have.  So, in particular, it puts much more stress on the schools, which are a common area of focus in New Jersey.  It forces the school to be all things to all people, much more than a simple educational place…It also creates stress on the criminal justice system as well as on the healthcare system.

ADUBATO: How does poverty break down geographically and demographically?

MILLER:  In absolute numbers, Essex County has about a third of the poverty in the state because of its size.  Also, Hudson, Passaic and Camden counties [have large numbers of poor people].  But in rate of poverty, very interestingly, you get a couple of the southwestern counties, such as Cumberland and Salem, that have some of the highest poverty rates in state.  They are much more rural, so it is more hidden poverty.  Demographically, one of the astonishing things is that Hispanics have now, in absolute numbers, reached and passed the level of whites in terms of the numbers in poverty in the state.  Definitely unemployment has been affecting much more disproportionately people who are African-American and people who are Hispanic, although it affects everybody.

ADUBATO:  How do you react to people who say, while I feel bad for folks, I have to take care of my own?

MILLER: We need to take care of our own, and those people themselves undoubtedly have family members, neighbors or friends who are in poverty.  So we are all in this together.  We don’t admit that all the time, but this is not just a problem for a small segment of New Jersey’s population. The urgency is huge.

There is no magic bullet to end poverty, no simple solution and no wand to wave.  However, there are some things that can help.  One is to raise the minimum wage in New Jersey from $7.25 to $8.50.  Second, the state needs to restore the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is critical for the working poor. This tax credit has been cut from the state budget in recent years, but Governor Chris Christie has been supportive of restoring it. 

Finally, all of us in New Jersey must realize that poverty is everyone’s problem. Poverty increases our tax burden, increases the likelihood of crime and diminishes our quality of life. As the late Congresswoman Millicent Fenwick once told me, “We are all in this thing together.”

No truer words have ever been spoken.

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