Interactive Map: About 25% of NJ Residents Facing Serious Economic Hardship

Median income nears $72K but state remains one of most expensive places to live; 11 percent earn below federal poverty level

New measures of wealth and poverty indicate economic conditions finally began improving for New Jersey’s families last year, but the state was still worse off than it was at the start of the decade.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 American Community Survey (which includes a host of information, including health insurance data, commuting patterns and education levels), reported that median household income in New Jersey rose by about $1,000, or a little more than 1 percent, between 2013 and 2014 to $71,919 and the proportion of people in poverty essentially leveled off at 11.1 percent.

Still, income was 2 percent less than in 2010 when adjusted for inflation and about 7 percent behind the previous high median income in 2008, early in the recession.

And the percentage of New Jerseyans living in poverty remained higher than any year in the past decade except for 2013, when the rate was 11.4 percent. According to the data, the .3 percent difference between the 2013 and 2014 rates is not statistically significant.

“We can at least say it hasn’t gotten worse,” said Melville D. Miller, president of Legal Services of New Jersey, whose Poverty Research Institute tracks wealth and poverty in the state. “That is, on the one hand, a welcome sign.”

However, Miller pointed out that the federal poverty level – last year, it was $23,850 for a family of four — means little in New Jersey, which has one of the highest costs of living in the nation. A better measure here, Miller said LSNJ found, is 250 percent of that federal poverty level.

The Census data did not provide that information, but it did report the number of people in New Jersey who were living at or below twice the poverty level: nearly 2.2 million, or roughly a quarter of the state’s populace. That was just slightly less than in 2013 and still higher than the rate of 23.8 percent in 2010.

Serena Rice, executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey, said a large portion of the state’s residents continue to face economic hardship due to “disheartening … stubbornly high poverty rates.”

Monique Hickson, who lives in an affordable-housing unit in Somerset County, said she and her husband work full-time and earn a combined $70,000 a year but, with three children, barely make ends meet.

“If there’s an incident, we may be facing homelessness. There’s no back-up system,” Hickson said. “It’s almost impossible to have any kind of quality of life. It’s more about surviving.”

Some New Jersey counties experience significantly more poverty than others in a state that is small, yet diverse socially and economically. In Cumberland County, 2 in 10 residents are living in poverty, and nearly 44 percent have income at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty limit. Not surprisingly, the median household income in the rural South Jersey county was just over $45,000.

Median household income in Hunterdon County was more than twice that — almost $104,000 — with less than 5 percent poor and 11 percent at twice the poverty level.

“These data show a state that’s stuck, and will remain stuck if our leaders focus only on the false cure of reduced taxes and corporate tax breaks as the way to grow the state’s economy,” said Brandon McKoy, a policy analyst with New Jersey Policy Perspective, a progressive think tank. “We clearly have a long way to go in rebuilding the state’s economy and creating broad-based growth, but there’s never been a better time to start.”

Nationally, there was no statistically significant change in either the official poverty rate or in real median household income, Census officials said. The nation’s official poverty rate, as derived from another Census survey, the 2015 Current Population Survey, was 14.8 percent, with 46.7 million people living in poverty. The median household income was $53,657.