More New Jersey residents are in poverty now than in the past five decades and the outlook for the future is bleak, according to a report released Sunday, which aims to redefine the definition of poor in the state.
The findings in the study done for Legal Services of New Jersey, an organization based in Edison that gives free legal help to low-income residents in civil cases, paint a grim picture for those in the middle and lower classes. The reports also notes more families have remained in poverty since the 2008 Great Recession.
By the group's definition of poverty, 2.8 million adults and 800,000 children lived poverty in 2014, with a portion of that attributed to the shrinking middle class and the high cost of living in a state where the richest 20 percent of the residents hold half of all the income.
The report differs greatly from poverty figures released in September by the U.S. Census -- which showed 1 million New Jerseyans in poverty -- because Legal Services uses a very different benchmark to measure the number of poor.
The federal poverty level for a family of four is $23,800. However, Legal Services factors cost of living, which is high in N.J., into its equation, and it sets the figure for a family of four anywhere from $64,238 to $73,371, the report said.
Legal Services president Melville D. Miller Jr. said therefore that 2 million New Jerseyans fall into that category, more than double the number cited by the U.S. Census.
The ninth annual study, 'Poverty Benchmarks 2015,' partially faults the lack of inflation adjustments to keep up with the rising costs of living in a state where the median household income was $71,637 in 2012. It also notes New Jersey as having the third highest long-term unemployment rate in the nation, beat out only by New Mexico and Washington, D.C.
Saying the safety nets to catch people on the precipice of poverty are growing bigger holes, the study calls for the state to develop a more intensive and comprehensive approach to combatting poverty and its consequences.
"These findings and the foreboding outlook for the future underline more than ever the need for a comprehensive anti-poverty strategy with a strengthened safety net, especially for the many poor people who are disabled or cannot work for other reasons, as well as the hundreds of thousands of children growing up in poverty-stricken homes," said Miller.
While the poverty level plateaued in 2014, it's still at a 50-year record high – 40 percent higher than it was before the 2008 economic meltdown. That put 250,000 more New Jerseyans into poverty after the recession, according to the report.
Yet at the same time, New Jersey's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, which is better known as food stamps) is underutilized and 80 percent of the other states are doing a better job at distributing those federal benefits, the report says. The program covers less than 11 percent of the cost of what is needed to keep a family out of poverty and less than 6 percent of that needed for single adults, the report said.
The study by Legal Services, which provides free legal assistance in civil cases to indigent clients, warns that future generations of children currently in poverty will not be able to escape their meager economic existence.
It noted that the state's elimination of emergency housing assistance for people on welfare has exacerbated homelessness in New Jersey.
"The urgency to act is great, because the study confirms that despite significant job and economic recovery since the end of the Great Recession in 2009, poverty in the Garden State has stubbornly remained at record levels not seen in 50 years," Miller said.
Among its recommendations for change, the report called on the state to implement an emergency assistance program to help people on welfare and Social Security get decent affordable housing and to increase welfare benefits to levels more commensurate with New Jersey's cost of living.
It also said the state should work with the private sector to develop ways to provide long-term employment with wages that are in line with the state's cost of living. And it called on the state to improve participation in the food stamp program.
On the plus side, the report said, there are millions more New Jerseyans getting Medicaid or private health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, the state expanded the federal school breakfast program into more school districts and it increased the earned-income tax credit.
The study was conducted by Legal Service's Poverty Research Institute.