Tackling an oxymoron: Poverty in Princeton

Michael Hill, Correspondent | December 19, 2018 | Social

It might seem like an oxymoron: poverty in Princeton. The city is home to one of the world’s most prestigious universities, but the mayor told an NJTV In Your Neighborhood forum that subsidies pay for 10 percent of the housing, and free and reduced lunch goes to 12 percent of public school students.

“I think it’s especially challenging to be poor in a place like Princeton when you’re surrounded by so much wealth,” said Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert.

The mayor says a wealth of caring and sharing. For instance, fundraising sends kids to school fed by targeting weekend food insecurity.

“As a community we come together and say this isn’t right,” Lempert said.

The faith community counts itself as a partner through programs such as Arm in Arm — supplying meals, training for jobs and helping homeowners avert foreclosure.

“Princeton is a town where the philanthropic dollar pie has many, many slices — from the university, to the hospital to the museum,” said David Davis, pastor of Nassau Presbyterian Church. “To provide for the services that we’re talking about tonight, those services do not always fall on top of the philanthropic ladder.”

Princeton Community Housing says 1,700 families are waiting a year to 18 months for affordable housing. It’s a challenge for advocates of the state’s working poor.

“Fifty one percent off the jobs in the state pay less than $20 an hour. When you look at that, that’s quite a big chunk of the population, again, just not being able to make enough to face the realistic costs of living in Mercer County where housing is expensive,” said Ed Truscelli, executive director of Princeton Community Housing.

The mayor was asked about striking the delicate balance of preserving farmland but also trying to rezone to make way for affordable housing to meet the borough’s obligation by 2025.

“I think you can have both if you think about it strategically and plan,” she said.

Philanthropic dollars and initiatives target double-digit rates of chronic absenteeism thanks to poverty.

“We know that if children come to school, there are various barometers along the education pipeline that help them succeed and really move out of poverty,” said Nelida Valentin, vice president of grants and programs for the Princeton Area Community Foundation.

Signs of poverty cause some tension and shame among students.

“We have situations where students’ confidence and self-esteem is often impacted,” said Lenora Keel, student and family services coordinator at Princeton High School.

But the school says it uses applications for free and reduced lunch to learn about its students and their families so it can eliminate fees for testing, yearbook and prom. A confidential corridor of connection.

“A lot of it will break your heart, but that’s what we’re there for is to be there for our students and to make sure that they are getting what they may not have access to,” said Princeton High School vice principal Angela Siso-Stentz.

Undoubtedly, there are those who callously wonder why live in Princeton if you can’t afford it?

“It’s not nirvana, but there are so many resources here. Your child can get a good education. There’s access to transportation. There’s cultural resources here. This is, everything that a suburban, and some might say an urban, environment can offer is here and it’s in really good quality. So why wouldn’t anyone aspire to live here?” asked Truscelli.