Profile: She’s Fighting the Good Fight Against Poverty, Hunger, Homelessness

Colleen O'Dea | September 30, 2015 | Profiles
For Serena Rice, the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey that she heads up is just the latest platform for easing the life of the poor

Serena Rice
Who: Serena Rice

Age: 38

Home: Montgomery

Family: Married with two children

What she does: Executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey

Her background: Rice’s educational achievements prepared her for a career helping the needy. She received a BA in sociology/religious studies from Westmont College in Santa Barbara, CA, then travelled to this coast, where she earned a Master of Divinity in theology from the Princeton Theological Seminary. She topped it off with a Master of Social Work in administration, policy, and planning from Rutgers University’s School of Social Work.

How she got started: Rice’s first job, in Santa Barbara, was providing therapy services to children with emotional and behavioral disorders as part of a team. While working on her master’s degrees, she also spent a year at United Progress, Inc., helping clients get emergency food, housing aid, and energy assistance and did grant research and community-needs assessment. In 2004, she began work as managing director of the Poverty Research Institute of Legal Services of New Jersey, which publishes research on issues related to poverty. Legal Services is a member of APN, so while she took the helm of the network 1 1/2 years ago, she has been part of the group for much longer.

What makes her job hard: “One of the biggest barriers in New Jersey is the myth that this is a high-income state,” Rice said. Part of that is due to the problem related to the federal definition of poverty, which is meaningless in a high-cost state like New Jersey. The formula, which dates back to the 1960s, “is really irrelevant now,” she said. The current poverty threshold is $24,250 for a family of four. In New Jersey, data shows, a family would need to pay two-thirds of that for housing alone. “Here, even if people are working full time, unless they are making $20 or $30 an hour, they are not making ends meet.” Using 200 percent of the federal limit is a better measure of poverty in New Jersey and by that benchmark, a quarter of the state’s residents are struggling.

It takes a network: Poverty and its ramifications are complicated. “No one organization, no matter how big or how well-resourced, can grapple with all the dimensions of poverty,” said Rice. So members of the Anti-Poverty Network include groups working with food assistance, emergency services and supportive housing, and labor unions, academics and faith-based organizations. “Our constituency recognizes this is a moral crisis in our state.”

Why the problem is stubborn: There are “structural factors” at work in New Jersey, according to Rice. Those born into poorer neighborhoods, both in the cities and in urban-ring suburbs, have a harder time simply because of where they live. They lack access to the kinds of well-paying jobs that could pull them out of poverty and into the middle class. “We really are developing two societies here,” Rice said. The problem was only exacerbated by the recession, from which New Jersey continues to recover slowly. “Where we have seen job growth, it is in low-wage jobs,” she said.

Her battle plan: Rice said the network’s goal is to “raise awareness of the problem and advocate for systemic change.” Working with 30 partners, APN began a new initiative this year exploring the connection between structural racism and poverty in New Jersey. “When you grow up in the urban core, you are experiencing a different New Jersey than the one my kids experience growing up in a suburban school district.” The network expects to release a report on the issue next spring and craft a “comprehensive anti-poverty platform” of actions to attack the problem.

Enlisting lawmakers is crucial: Some of the solutions will by necessity need legislative action. So the network this year launched a campaign seeking to get candidates for the Assembly to sign a pledge acknowledging the problem and agreeing to work toward solutions. The pledge includes the estimated number of people living in “true poverty” — twice the federal poverty limit — by district. It goes on to say that the candidate believes all residents should “have access to decent housing, basic nutrition, and economic opportunity” and will work with APN “to prevent, reduce, and end poverty in my district and throughout New Jersey.” As of Monday, 13 candidates — 10 Democrats, two independents and one Republican — had signed the pledge.

Why this matters to her: “I really believe for me, personally, my work flows from my faith as a Christian,” said Rice, who is a member of the Living Waters Lutheran Church’s civil rights and social-action committee. “There is an intrinsic value to every human being. When people are trapped in poverty, as they are now, it really limits them.” She was buoyed by the message Pope Francis delivered last week, including his pleas to fight poverty and hunger, during his visit to the area and by the positive public reaction to him. “Hopefully, New Jersey can respond to the moral call he put out,” Rice said.

What you may not know about her: Rice writes poetry. Though she has only published poems on her personal blog, Rice said poetry is “my way of processing big and small experiences and exploring their personal meaning for me.”