South Jersey Lags on State Aid Despite Its Economic and Social Challenges

New evidence suggests southern counties are being shortchanged by the state, not getting ‘fair share’ of assistance

Lucy in Margate
South Jersey gets less state aid than central or northern regions despite a series of economic and social challenges that are more severe than in other areas, according to a study released by Rutgers-Camden on Tuesday.

The study, believed to be the first of its kind, found that the eight counties of South Jersey were less likely to receive “public goods” such as state help with education, health or transportation, than the two other regions — even when other possible explanations such as population size, taxable property, or voter turnout are taken into account.

Titled “Is South Jersey Getting Its ‘Fair Share’ of Public Goods?”, the study looked at whether lower political participation, for example, might explain a disparity between the state assistance to the region — either in the form of direct aid or in the form of local services like hospitals — and that received by the other two areas.

But it found that there was no statistically significant difference in voter participation between the regions.

It concluded that simply being a southern county was an important determinant of the availability of state aid in a list of other possible explanations.

“Whether or not a county is in the southern region is a significant predictor of receiving fewer public goods,” said the report, produced by the Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs at Rutgers University.

Taken together, the eight counties of South Jersey — Burlington, Ocean, Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, Salem, Gloucester and Camden — have lower incomes, higher poverty and jobless rates, and a smaller number of college graduates than either central or northern New Jersey, the study found.

The average income of the 20th percentile, for example, was $26,230 in South Jersey, compared with $36,916 in central Jersey and $30,047 in north Jersey, the study found, citing the NJ Data Book for 2000 to 2015.

The unemployment rate for the period was 10.1 percent in South Jersey, well above the 7.1 percent and 8.5 percent for central and north Jersey, respectively.

The study, by Shauna Shames, an assistant professor of political science, and Spencer Clayton, a PhD candidate, also found that South Jersey is worse off when measured by statistics on health, crime, educational attainment and transportation facilities.

Only 24.7 percent of South Jerseyans go to college, compared with 42.7 percent and 34.8 percent in the central and northern regions, respectively. South Jersey also has more victims of violent crime, fewer hospital beds, and a higher diabetic rate than the other regions, the study found.

Despite more economic challenges in South Jersey, the region fails to attract the help it needs from the state, the study said.

“We might think that because counties in South Jersey are on average poorer than those in North and Central regions, in terms of average property values and the average income per taxpayer, then the state would need to give more to those less well-off southern counties. But instead we see the opposite,” the study said.

Shames said she did not set out to identify the causes of the regional disparities, but argued that her findings showed a need for state government to do more to provide services such as transportation in a region that does not always support their provision by the private market.

“We don’t make money from public goods,” Shames said at a launch event. “The numbers suggest that the distribution of public goods isn’t quite right.”

Albert Kelly, Mayor of Bridgeton in Cumberland County, and a panelist at the event, said his residents, many of them farm workers of Mexican origin, make an average of only $13,000 a year, and that direct aid from the state has dropped to $2.3 million a year from $4.4 million in the early 2000s.

Despite the challenges of a big immigrant population and a faded manufacturing base, the city feels ignored by Trenton, Kelly said. “Most people have never heard of Bridgeton,” he said.

There are similar problems in the Salem County Borough of Elmer, a community of about 1,400 people where many tax-exempt properties such as a school, a post office and five churches make it hard to raise enough revenue from just 550 houses.

Elmer Mayor Joseph Stemberger told the Rutgers gathering that the town needs to refurbish its water tower at a cost of $750,000, and failed to get help from the federal government, so is hoping that the state will step up.

Assemblywoman Patricia Egan Jones (D-Camden and Gloucester) said the Rutgers study provides the evidence that elected representatives need to argue for more aid from the state. “We are waging the battle of the have-nots,” she said. “With this empirical data, we have a much better chance of getting the right outcome that we need.”