After five decades of decline, Camden is experiencing a renaissance thanks to a combination of major public and private investment. And a new report makes the case that the resulting job growth, public safety gains and advancements in education will also lead to better public health.
The report, from a Philadelphia-based firm of consultants hired by the Rowan University/Rutgers-Camden Board of Governors, examines the impact of some $2.5 billion in investment on the South Jersey city, once the nation’s poorest, over the past five years.
County representatives said $1.4 billion of that $2.5 billion came from New Jersey’s publicly financed economic-development tax-incentive programs, which are facing increasing scrutiny. The programs involve tax benefits that can be redeemed over the course of several years, making it hard to track the actual cost to taxpayers.
Gov. Phil Murphy criticized the programs at length in his State of the State address last week, and expanded on plans to overhaul them the day after the speech; the new report was released shortly before he took the podium to deliver his remarks last Tuesday in Trenton.
Many Camden advocates, including Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), have insisted the state has had an important role to play in boosting Camden’s down-and-out economy. Former Gov. James J. Florio, a longtime resident of the city, said while there are “legitimate criticisms” of these public incentive programs, one only needs to walk down the street in Camden to know things there have changed for the better.
Florio: ‘You can’t argue with the results’
“An easy way to verify the situation is to go there,” Florio said. “You can’t argue with the results.”
Florio, who also served in the U.S. House of Representatives, wrote a passionate introduction to the report, with a rallying cry for continued public support for the city’s revitalization. More work remains to be done, he said — something that the consultants also emphasized — but the mission remains the “ultimate morality play,” Florio noted. “We have already advanced (Camden’s reform) substantively up the mountain. The attainable goal is to reach the peak. Together, it can be done.”
While the report’s author, Econsult Solutions Inc.— which was paid $40,000 to produce the 40-page review — did not directly measure changes in the health of Camden residents, it identified gains in key sectors, like reduced crime and growing graduation rates, and cited other research that has connected these types of improvements with improved medical outcomes and wellness in general.
“By investing in these areas, public and private sector stakeholders are improving Camden’s public health,” the consultants wrote, noting the growing focus in New Jersey and across the nation on social determinants of health — factors like education, community safety and poverty in general, which can have tremendous impact on patient and population health.
“I do think they are pointing to promising trends that are very real and quantifiable,” said Darren Spielman, executive director for the Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs at Rutgers University-Camden, referring to the report’s authors. “When these things start to change, we know from other research that health indicators improve.”
When you consider the direct impact safer streets and more community interaction have on individuals and their mental health, change has already occurred, Florio argued. “Health is not just physical,” he said, “and the changes that have occurred are really monumental.”
Population of roughly 77,000
Econsult notes that Camden, with a population of roughly 77,000, has faced a litany of challenges in the past century, as businesses left the city, infrastructure deteriorated and poor public oversight led to a decline in private investment. By 2006, more than half the residents were poor — the $18,000 annual median income was the lowest nationwide — and the majority of those over age 25 had not graduated from high school.
While other studies and reports had created a blueprint for reform by 2001, Econsult said that change did not begin to truly take hold for at least another decade. But since 2011, public and private forces have been working together to “stimulate the long-atrophied pillars of stability and social determinants of health,” including the fiscal health of the government, better public safety and schools, and investments in housing, parks, transportation and business, the report notes.
The Econsult report identifies several successful results, including an improvement in the city’s credit rating in 2011 (from so-called junk-bond status to investment grade, or at relatively low risk for default on municipal bonds).
The dismantling of the Camden City Police Department, which was replaced by a countywide division in 2013, helped triple the number of cops on the beat and change policing strategies. Since then, the city has seen a 60 percent drop in murders and a 40 percent decline in all violent crime.
Renewed civic engagement
“People have to feel safe walking the streets,” Florio said, stressing how the change in policing was an important spur for other changes. He praised the “competency and honesty” of recent city leaders, the “collaborative spirit” in which they worked with other public and private supporters, and a renewed civic engagement of Camden citizens for making the city’s wider reforms possible.
The report credits new investments of some $336 million in school facilities, expansion of charter schools and other policy reforms for better education outcomes — something experts say is a critical predictor when it comes to lifelong health and wellness. The high school graduation rate increased nearly 70 percent, the consultants found, and the dropout rate has declined 10 percent over five years.
Today, the city has its lowest unemployment rate in nearly three decades, at 7.9 percent, and leaders expect to add another 5,000 jobs based on the continued economic growth, according to the report. (While unemployment is down nationally and was at 4 percent statewide as of November, experts suggest that, given the scope of Camden’s troubles, it is less likely to benefit from the impact of these larger economic trends.)
“These promising results illustrate what dedicated organizations can achieve by working together as a coalition, sharing information, and tackling community needs directly,” said Kathleen Noonan, CEO of the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers, a collaborative cited in the report for its impact on reforming healthcare models.
“The focus on social determinants of health shows how critical it is to take a holistic approach to overcoming adversity, whether we’re working to better the wellbeing of a person or a city,” Noonan said. The coalition has had success collaborating with multiple hospital systems and community-based organizations to improve care for underserved patients with complex needs, in large part by focusing on social determinants, and it has spearheaded a national movement to expand and refine the model.
Crucial role of ‘Eds and Meds’
Much of the consultant’s focus was on the public and private investments made in Camden and the role these have played in improving the community, with new and revamped parks, additional housing, and scholarship programs. At least $466 million has been committed to the “Eds and Meds” sectors, or higher education and medical facilities, which account for four out of 10 jobs in the city. (While total jobs declined between 2004 and 2017, employment in these sectors grew by two-thirds.)
A fair amount of the “Eds and Meds” growth can be tied to Cooper University Health Care, the Camden-based provider network that treats some 1.4 million patients each year from around the region and employs 7,500 people, including more than 560 city residents, the report notes. Virtua Health System, another regional powerhouse, also employs more than 200 Camden citizens.
But the consultants also underlined how the state, through its Economic Development Authority, has played a critical role in Camden’s revitalization.
The EDA has drawn fierce criticism recently from the Office of the State Comptroller, which released a scathing audit of its work earlier this month, and from Rutgers University’s Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, which questioned the per-job cost of its tax breaks in a report released last summer. (In some cases, these deals resulted in more than $30,000 spending per job in Camden, Bloustein found.)
“The State of New Jersey plays an important role in ensuring that the City of Camden is financially supported, even as the stabilization and self-sustaining process takes roots. The investments from the State help the City meet its fundamental obligations to residents and businesses in Camden. They help ensure that the platform for growth is not compromised,” the report asserts.