When it comes to their impressions of New Jersey’s cities, the verdict from state residents can be best summed up in two words: It’s complicated.
In the lead-up to tomorrow’s NJ Spotlight on Cities conference in Newark, NJ Spotlight partnered with Rutgers University’s Eagleton Poll to ask New Jersey residents about the state of their cities and what encouraged or concerned them the most.
The respondents appeared roughly split between those who thought the state of the cities to be good or excellent (44 percent) and those who felt the state of the cities was fair or poor (49 percent).
When asked what direction we were headed in, opinions differed sharply. Just 23 percent thought they had improved in the last five years, while 30 percent thought they had gotten worse. The plurality (37 percent) thought not much had changed.
The survey polled 802 people by phone in early September, with a margin of error of 3.9 percent.
Whether the results were a sign of malaise or deep divisions about our cities is hard to say. A similar poll by Eagleton 30 years ago found eerily similar answers, with 34 percent saying not much had changed, 34 percent saying they had gotten worse, and 25 percent saying things were improving.
These are all questions that NJ Spotlight will explore in its annual conference tomorrow, to be held at New Jersey Performing Arts Center.
A main theme will be the state’s urban agenda both past and future, with Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and former Gov. Thomas Kean Sr. as the morning keynote speakers. The day will culminate with a panel of gubernatorial hopefuls in the 2017 election.
Ashley Koning, interim director the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling, said there were highlights within the poll results by regions and different demographic groups that were worth noting.
For instance, the younger the respondents, the more upbeat they were about the cities.
“Residents who are younger, in higher income brackets, and have higher levels of education believe cities are a good place to live and have become an increasingly better place in the past five years,” she said.
“Older residents, those in the lowest income level, and those with less than a college degree feel just the opposite, however."
Those living in the densely populous north also were more positive, although the numbers within the cities themselves were not as encouraging.
"Location matters,” Koning said. “Residents who live in or near a city are generally less likely to rate New Jersey’s cities as an excellent or good place to live."
There were clearer lines to the pervasive issues most affecting the cities: the need for more job opportunities and public safety. Each was cited the most as the No. 1 concern, with 23 percent picking each.
Public schools finished second, at 18 percent, and affordable housing and other concerns a distant third.
Those, too, were differentiated by demographic and especially party lines. While 28 percent of Democrats said job opportunities were the primary need, besting public safety by 10 points, it was the reverse among Republicans.
The Eagleton Poll also asked about the state of New Jersey’s public schools after 30 years of debate about how they are to be funded, including the current controversy over Gov. Chris Christie’s proposal to level-fund state aid to all districts, potentially leading to deep cuts especially in city districts.
But a large segment of residents surveyed questioned to how much the funding changes mattered in their schools, both urban and suburban.
Forty-four percent of all respondents said the funding increases of the last three decades had not much mattered to school quality in the urban districts, with the rest split between those that said it improved schools and those who said it did not.
When asked about their local schools — urban or suburban — 49 percent said that funding increases had not made a significant difference.