Despite a wave of development in some of New Jersey’s biggest cities, poverty remains a stubborn problem that advocates say the state is doing little to address.
The poverty rate in all of New Jersey’s largest cities was higher last year than that of the state as a whole, according to the most recent U.S. Census data. New Jersey’s poverty rate was 10.8 percent last year, slightly less than in 2014 but significantly higher than the 2005 rate of 8.7 percent. Over the decade, more than 200,000 New Jerseyans joined the poverty rolls, a 28 percent increase, to almost 950,000 people. Although a quarter of the state’s residents live in New Jersey’s 52 cities, almost half of all those in poverty are city dwellers.
“The state simply has no strategy to address poverty statewide, and there’s nowhere this problem is more acutely felt than in our major cities,” said Ray Castro, senior policy analyst with New Jersey Policy Perspective, a Trenton-based progressive think tank. “And when lawmakers have taken steps that would directly benefit urban areas, the governor has repeatedly rejected those efforts … The state’s approach is penny wise and pound foolish, because our economic growth depends on turning these cities around.”
In just the past four months, Gov. Chris Christie has vetoed bills that would have increased the state’s minimum wage and provided higher cash assistance to the poorest residents eligible to receive so-called welfare payments and given families getting welfare additional aid when they have a baby.
Still, the news isn’t all bad. The number of people living in poverty rose at a lower rate over the past decade than the state average in seven of eight large cities and in two others — Camden and East Orange — the number of people considered poor declined between 2005 and 2015. The only big city with a larger increase than the state’s was Clifton, whose 10.9 percent poverty rate is barely higher than that of New Jersey, but which saw the number of its residents living in poverty rise by 44 percent.
Poverty is a problem for cities of all sizes. The smaller cities tend to have lower rates, with the lowest being 1.9 percent in Linwood in Atlantic County. However, the highest poverty rate was also in a small city: An estimated 41 percent of Salem residents were considered poor in the period of 2010 through 2014, the most current data available for smaller cities. More than two in 10 residents had incomes below the poverty threshold in 18 cities. Of the large cities, Camden’s 40.5 percent poverty rate was the highest in 2015.
Last year, a couple with two children were considered poor if their income was below $24,036. Advocates argue that the national poverty thresholds hold little meaning in a high-cost state like New Jersey and far more people are struggling than the official numbers indicate.
Castro said the state can take simple steps to help fight urban poverty. These include increasing the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families cash welfare payments for the first time in nearly 30 years and reversing cuts to food assistance, education and training, and emergency assistance “that are trapping an increasing number of families in an endless cycle of poverty in our urban centers.”
A report last spring by the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey and the John S. Watson Institute for Public Policy called concentrated poverty in the cities a “perpetuating cycle” because residents have great needs but the cities don’t have the money to provide for them.
“Urgent strategies are needed to alleviate concentrated poverty in New Jersey,” the report stated. “If New Jersey is to make real progress on reducing the systemic poverty that traps far too many of our residents, the entire state must recognize and respond to this crisis. This means promoting family financial success through supportive work/family policies, adjusting the allocation of municipal budget State aid and support programming so that it prioritizes areas of concentrated need, and reimagining the fundamental structure of New Jersey’s property tax system.”