NJ Kids Poorer This Year Than Last, More Families Slip Below Poverty Limit

Detailing rising unemployment and housing costs, annual survey offers bleak assessment of state still reeling from recession

An annual survey of the wellbeing of children in New Jersey found rising poverty and an increasing inability of families to make ends meet.

The 2013 edition of New Jersey Kids Count, released on Wednesday by Advocates for Children of New Jersey, shows the devastating effects of the most recent recession on the state’s youth and their families. Most of the data covers 2011 and 2012 and measures change during the recession and post-recession period in areas of economics, health, education, and safety.

“While the rankings shift every year, we see certain trends across many counties, including increasing child poverty, unemployment, and high housing costs,” said Cecilia Zalkind, ACNJ’s executive director.

For instance, the data shows more than 296,000 children in New Jersey living below the federal poverty limit in 2011. That represents 15 percent of the total child population in one of the wealthiest states in the nation. The number of children in poverty rose by a quarter between 2007 and 2011.

Officially, the recent recession lasted from December 2007 to June 2009, but the nation still has not fully recovered. New Jersey continues to have one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. Cumberland and Passaic counties had the highest rates of children living in poverty, more than 25 percent in both cases. While Hunterdon and Somerset had the lowest, at 5 percent, the number of poor children more than doubled in both counties during the four-year period. The number of children in poverty declined only in Atlantic and Cumberland counties.

“Although this year’s data once again reveal different conditions for child wellbeing in each county, rising poverty persists in all but two counties,” according to the report.

Related measures showed similar trends. The number of children receiving NJ SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, rose dramatically — by 80 percent statewide to nearly 400,000 — and participation doubled in nine counties: Bergen, Burlington, Hunterdon, Middlesex, Morris, Ocean, Somerset, Sussex, and Union.

Meanwhile, the median income of families with children dropped by about $600 between 2007 and 2011 to $81,983. And more than half of households in the state were spending more than 30 percent of income on rent, with the rate ranging as high as 61 percent in Sussex and Ocean counties.

“As children and families continue to struggle, it is more important than ever to make sound decisions to improve children’s lives and invest in their futures,” Zalkind said. “The Kids Count data should be used to inform our response to children’s needs and guide investments of our limited state resources.”

Kids Count ranks counties every year in the overall wellbeing of children. Considering all factors, Hunterdon moved back to the top spot after dropping down to second last year, while Salem County ranked last, moving down three spots. The rankings typically show that children fare better in wealthier and northern counties, worse in poorer, southern counties. This year, of the five lowest ranking counties, only Passaic was not in South Jersey.

ACNJ’s goals with the report are to gauge the health and welfare of children and to try to draw attention to those areas officials could improve. The organization hosts regional forums across the state that bring together county, city, state, and community leaders to discuss issues related to children.

Among other trends, the report found:

The number of slots in licensed childcare centers for children age 0-4 rose slightly to 650 for every 1,000 young children. But the number of slots in half the counties dropped. And only two counties, Cumberland and Hudson, saw increases in the number of licensed childcare centers available to working parents. The number of centers statewide dropped by 5 percent and there were double-digit drops in the number of centers in Atlantic, Camden, Cape May, Ocean, and Warren counties.

Most counties boosted the percentage of eligible children receiving free- or reduced-price breakfast at school, with increases ranging from 1 percent in Passaic County to 65 percent in Hunterdon. Breakfast rates dropped in five counties, with the largest decline being 23 percent in Cape May County.

The number of children without health insurance dropped 19 percent; more than 100,000 youths under age 18 were uninsured. Burlington, Cape May, Middlesex, and Morris logged increases in children without insurance and in Morris, the ranks of uninsured youths rose by 11 percent.

Fewer children were in the state’s foster care system in almost every county, with declines ranging from 1 percent in Morris County to 48 percent in Salem and Essex. The number of children in out-of-home placements rose only in Atlantic, Gloucester, Hunterdon, and Warren counties.