Despite promising census figures, not everyone is bouncing back from recession

Leah Mishkin, Correspondent | September 14, 2017 | People

It’s eight years since the end of the great recession. There are signs the economy’s improving: the job market’s strong and family income is rising. But that’s not the whole story. U.S. Census data shows the poverty rates for those still Chasing the Dream have barely budged.

“We’ll give two trays if we have it, you know. At the end of the month we get a higher volume of people because of the social benefits have depleted for most people,” said Saint John’s Soup Kitchen employee Pete Dobbs.

On average the Saint John’s Soup Kitchen in Newark sees close to 300 people a day for lunch. Volunteers from the Korean church were making meals.

Dobbs says the church has been feeding people for 40 years, but just in the past five that he’s been working here he’s noticed more and more people in need of assistance.

“Jobs aren’t that plentiful. They’re starting to creep back slowly, but surely, here,” he said.

The U.S. Census released new figures on poverty and income in the state of New Jersey. What it shows is that the economy is starting to recover from the recession. While the state’s median household income has improved by 9.3 percent to roughly 76,000 in the past four years, Jon Whiten, with the left-leaning think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective, said there’s still a long way to go. The federal poverty rate for 2016 is 28.2 percent in Newark. That’s nearly three times higher than New Jersey’s poverty rate overall.

Whiten told us he’s not surprised that soup kitchens like this one are seeing more people.

“When you look at things like the federal poverty level, it’s a very blunt instrument. It doesn’t necessarily account for what it really takes to get by in New Jersey,” he said.

When walking around, you meet people like Dave Jackson — an air force veteran who got injured by a grenade while serving in Kuwait. He’s been coming to St. John’s Soup Kitchen for over 20 years. He says when he got out of the hospital the VA lost track of his records, and as result he’s been living on the streets.

“I don’t have a current home yet, and I’m still fighting for what I deserve and what’s supposed to be mine. It might take a little time but I’m patient. I have patience,” he said.

Despite everything they’ve been though, homeless like Emmanuelle, says he’s just thankful to be given some help. After finishing his meal, NJTV News noticed him still standing in the rain. He said he was waiting for everyone to finish so he can help clean any trash left behind as a way to say thank you. He does this every single day.

“I do that from my heart because they already pay me by feeding me,” Emmanuelle said.

Because of what people, like Jackson, say what they’re hoping for is simple: “I hope to wake up tomorrow, that’s all. That’s my best gift, wake up tomorrow and be as happy as I am today.”

And until they find their way, one homeless veteran told us off camera that all he asks from people, more than money, is compassion.

Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multi-platform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by The JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.