The official poverty numbers mean little in a high-cost state like New Jersey, but a new report paints a stark picture of the economic health of New Jersey households four years into the economic recovery: In 70 percent of New Jersey municipalities, at least a quarter of the households could not afford the bare necessities in 2014.
That's what data from the United Way of Northern New Jersey'sshows. Released earlier this week, the report found that 37 percent of households in the state could not afford a basic survival budget in 2014. That was higher than in 2010, when 34 percent of households were living in poverty or considered ALICE — Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.
The United Way's biennial report calculates a basic budget that includes housing, food, transportation, healthcare, taxes, and miscellaneous expenses and then uses income data to determine how many families could afford to pay those expenses. For 2014, that budget averaged $64,176 for a family of four with two young children, but it ranged from a low of $55,164 in Hudson County to a high of $81,168 in Hunterdon. It's an effort to give a better picture of those who are struggling than the poverty measure, which is all but meaningless in a high-cost state like New Jersey.
In 2014, the federal poverty rate was $23,850 for a family of four. According to the ALICE report, for that money, a New Jersey family could pay for housing and taxes and have $233 a month left for food, with nothing for childcare, healthcare, or transportation.
About 340,000 households in New Jersey were living below the federal poverty level in 2014, with another 824,000 in the ranks of ALICE, according to the United Way report.
"What was striking to me is how the recovery from the Great Recession still has not reached many households," said Stephanie Hoopes, the report's lead researcher and director of the United Way's ALICE project.
While the working poor are spread across the state, the problem is worse in some counties than in others. Almost a quarter of households in Hunterdon, the state's most affluent county, were unable to afford a survival budget, while close to six in 10 households in Cumberland were living in poverty or ALICE.
"We all know ALICE," Hoopes said.
On the income side, the biggest problem is the glut of low-paying jobs: more than half of all jobs in the state paid less than $20 an hour. On the spending side, housing continues to be the greatest struggle, with the average fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment including utilities costing $1,257 a month. New Jersey does not have enough affordable housing, particularly units suitable for families. Child care is also very expensive — the report estimates a monthly cost of $1,374 for an infant and preschooler — but not all households have young children.
Child care is a problem for Charlene O'Brien, a mother of two who works for Morris County's child care referral agency and is among the ranks of the ALICE.
"I rely a lot on my family for childcare," O'Brien said. "The cost of after-school care is something I can't afford. It's a constant stressor. I'm not eligible for SNAP (the program formerly called food stamps) and the cost of groceries just keeps going up. One thing I can change is how much I spend on groceries. I often have to say, 'Sorry, kids, you can't have this this week.'"
Only in six of the wealthiest municipalities in the state did fewer than one in 10 households struggle to pay all their bills. On the other hand, more than half were below the ALICE threshold in 65 towns, and while that list included habitually struggling cities like Camden and Atlantic City, it also had some unexpected places like Seaside Heights, where more than three quarters could not make ends meet, and the working-class towns of Netcong and Lake Como.
The report notes that the state's recovery from the recession was slow: "New Jersey’s economy saw only incremental growth in recent years, making it difficult for many households to improve their financial status. While many expected the economic climate to improve in 2010, the technical end of the Great Recession, evidence of recovery didn’t emerge until 2012. Between 2012 and 2014, the economy showed signs of improvement, yet more than one in three households in New Jersey struggled financially, as the cost of living continued to exceed what most wages paid."
While comparisons in the smallest areas may not be totally accurate because of overlapping estimates and large margins of error, data shows the number of households in poverty or ALICE rose between 2010, the official end of the recession, and 2014, four years into the recovery, in three-quarters of municipalities. And the percentage of households below the ALICE threshold rose in each of the state's 13 largest cities, where comparisons are valid, from the start of the recession in 2007 to 2014.