Census Survey Paints Discouraging Portrait of NJ’s Poor and Middle Class

Economic indicators show recession’s effects linger as household incomes barely increase, poverty climbs

The orange point on the map denotes the county with highest income, while the green denotes the lowest.

New Jerseyans are continuing to struggle to recover from the recession, with household incomes barely rising while the number of families living in poverty increased significantly.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey paints a picture of a state not even close to regaining the wealth and high-paying jobs lost during the 2007-09 recession: Median household income was essentially stable at $69,667, but the proportion of families living in poverty rose to 8.3 percent and more than 1.1 million people were without health insurance.

“One thing is clear: the middle class and the poor are worse off than they were during the recession, and even than when the recovery had started,” said Ray Castro, senior policy analyst with the think-tank New Jersey Policy Perspective. “Banks are doing well, Wall Street is doing well, but it’s not trickling down the way it’s supposed to, to ordinary New Jerseyans.”

Castro said the state’s policies have had a negative impact on the way residents are recovering, or not, from the recession that economists say ended in June 2009. Cuts in the Earned Income Tax Credit program, New Jersey Family Care insurance program and public employee rolls have hurt those at lower- and middle-income levels, he said.

“And we’re still arguing over the minimum wage,” added Castro.

Gov. Chris Christie twice vetoed legislation to raise the minimum wage in New Jersey to $8.25 and require annual increases tied to the cost of living. In his conditional veto message last January, Christie called the bill “lopsided” and said it “will jeopardize the economic recovery we all seek.” The Legislature, with Democratic votes, placed the question on the November ballot.

Castro said a minimum wage increase is important because “many good-paying jobs in New Jersey have been permanently lost” and much of the employment increase in the private sector has been in low-paying jobs.

According to the statistics from the Census Bureau’s annual survey, the median household income for New Jerseyans last year was $69,667, an increase considered statistically insignificant compared to 2011’s inflation-adjusted median of $68,962. It is significantly lower – almost 7 percent — than the inflation-adjusted 2008 income of $74,826.

During the same period, the percentage of New Jersey families living in poverty rose from 6.4 percent in 2008 to 7.8 percent in 2011 to 8.2 percent last year, the data show. Even more families with children were living in poverty – 12.9 percent, up from 12 percent the previous year and 9.8 percent in 2008. The number of people living in poverty rose, as well.

But that is not a good measure of true poverty in New Jersey. In its Benchmarks 2013 report released earlier this month, Legal Services of New Jersey noted, “The federal poverty level is widely considered to understate true poverty. Among many shortcomings, the FPL is most prejudicial to New Jersey in failing to recognize any difference in or adjustment for wide disparities in the cost of living across the states.”

The federal poverty level varies by the size of the household. In 2012, a family of four with $23,050 in income or less was considered poor.

LSNJ’s report states that a better measure of poverty in New Jersey is 250 percent of the federal poverty level, which would have been $57,625 for a family of four last year. While the Census data does not directly correlate with these numbers, it shows that roughly 257,000 New Jersey families had incomes of less than $25,000 last year, while about 620,000 took in less than $50,000.

“With an income lower than the real cost of living, a family will likely be forced to go without food, default on a rent payment, defer a medical examination, or refrain from purchasing school clothing for a child,” the report states.

According to Census officials, New Jersey was one of only five states in which the number of people living in poverty increased between 2011 and 2012. Still, the state had one of the lowest poverty rates in the nation.

The Census data registered little change in another expense – health insurance coverage – between 2011 and 2012, but there was a statistically significant increase in the percentage of people without insurance from 12 percent in 2008 to 12.7 percent last year. That means there are about 85,000 more New Jerseyans without health insurance in 2012 than there were four years earlier.

“I suppose that given how weak the employment market has been, this is actually good news,” said Joel Cantor, director of the Center for State Health Policy and a professor of public policy at Rutgers University. “Employer coverage is holding its own in spite of stubbornly high unemployment. There is no sign of employers dropping coverage in response to, or anticipation of, the Affordable Care Act, at least as of 2012.”

According to the data, 84.7 percent of employed New Jerseyans had health insurance last year, the same as in 2011 and 2010. That’s still less than the 86 percent with coverage in 2008.

Cantor noted that while some provisions of the ACA are already in effect, its biggest impact won’t be felt until 2014, “so it may be too early to see an employer reaction to the law.”

The insurance picture is bleaker for the unemployed: Almost 4 in 10 of those people age 18-64 who were looking for work in 2012 were uninsured, the same proportion as in 2008. However, that was an improvement over the 42.5 percent uninsured rate in 2011.

According to the Census Bureau, neither income nor poverty rates were statistically significant for most states, while the percentage of people uninsured dropped in most states between 2010 and 2012.

Specific data for counties, also released yesterday, show some expected trends in New Jersey. Hunterdon County continued to have the highest median household income — $105,186 – as well as the lowest percentage of families living in poverty – 2.7 percent. Hunterdon ranked as the fourth-richest county in the nation among counties with a population of at least 65,000 and was one of only five counties with a median household income of at least $100,000. Cumberland County had the highest proportion of poor families, 15.6 percent, as well as the lowest median income of $47,072.

In total, the American Community Survey, released yesterday, includes statistics on more than 40 topics.

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