Life in New Jersey is harder than it seems.

Just to survive in Camden County, a family of four — two adults, one preschooler, and one school-age child — had to take in as much as $72,000 annually to meet basic needs in 2019.

And similar sticker-shock numbers were recorded in other counties as well: $74,000 in Burlington County; $72,000 in Gloucester County; $79,000 in Ocean County. The highest survival salary was $98,000 in Somerset County; the lowest was $64,000 in Cumberland County.

Below those thresholds, families would be almost certain to be experiencing significant deprivation, according to a report released earlier this month by the Poverty Research Institute of Legal Services of New Jersey, headquartered in Edison, Middlesex County.

These figures “represent the absolute minimum working families in New Jersey need to survive with dignity and without any public or private support,” said Shivi Prasad, director of the institute. “They may sound like a lot at first, but when you start breaking down the costs, very quickly the money dissipates.

“Take in less salary and you have to start making trade-offs: Pay the rent, but don’t buy that winter coat.”

Titled “True Poverty: What it Takes to Avoid Poverty and Deprivation in the Garden State,” the report measures poverty in a manner more realistic than the 60-year-old federal poverty level, its authors say. Legal Services of New Jersey has been providing free legal aid to low-income people through offices in all 21 counties for more than 50 years.

A similar study last year by the University of Washington-Seattle showed that a Philadelphia family of four had to make more than $70,000 annually in 2019 just to get by.

Unlike the federal measure, the Legal Services “true poverty” gauge takes into account the costs of what a family needs, including paying for food, housing, child care, transportation, health insurance, taxes, and other expenses. The federal measure, created in 1965 based on much more simplistic criteria, is seen by most poverty experts as outmoded.

As a result, the report asserts, the true poverty measure shows that there might be closer to three million people living in poverty in New Jersey, not the 800,000 described by federal means, in 2019. The federal poverty level of New Jersey was around 9%, while the true poverty level reached above 30%, according to the report.

And this was before the pandemic hit, throwing the economy into chaos and people out of work. Since April 2020, New Jersey has recovered only 58% of the jobs lost to COVID-19 in a state with 450,000 food-insecure families, according to the report.

The research “clearly puts into sharp and revealing focus the real depth and breadth of deprivation for so many people living in our state, even when they are working, sometimes multiple jobs, but still remain unable to afford the most basic needs to survive,” said Dawn Miller, president of Legal Services of New Jersey.

That “harsh reality,” she said, reflects the cost of just getting by with no frills, no savings for college or retirement, or unexpected repairs.

Unable to stretch their wages to cover basic necessities, these families are nevertheless not deemed poor by the official federal poverty measure, and don’t qualify for public assistance programs.

That leads to a lack of understanding of the depth and sweep of poverty, the report concludes. As a result, “people experiencing hardship are overlooked and ignored.”

Poverty: $20,000 vs. $70,000

According to 2019 federal poverty guidelines, a family of three — one working parent and two children — was considered to be living in poverty if its annual salary was $20,598.

But, the report shows, such a family would be in true poverty if its income fell below $70,372.

Revealing the weakness of the federal measure, the report points out that annual median gross rent in New Jersey for a two-bedroom unit in 2019 was $17,316, “which would have consumed, just for housing, nearly 85%” of the family’s federal poverty budget, according to the report.

The federal poverty level has no way to calculate that vital fact. That’s unfortunate, experts say, because New Jersey is an expensive place to live. In 2019, the state recorded the third-highest median monthly housing cost in the nation, behind California and Hawaii.

“The federal poverty level is completely useless and shouldn’t remotely be used.” said Adele LaTourette, director of Hunger Free New Jersey in Englewood, Bergen County. “It has no relevance in today’s world.”

Along with omitting family expenses, the federal poverty level fails to take geography into account. For example, it costs much more to live in San Francisco than in Logan, N.J., but the federal poverty level is the same in both places.

Despite its known flaws, experts say, the federal poverty level has enormous influence. Federal, state, and local programs that help people in poverty base calculations of need on its specifications. In 2011, the U.S. Census introduced a newer benchmark, the Supplemental Poverty measure, which takes family expenses and government aid into account. But it’s not in wide use.

Accurate picture needed

“We need a more accurate picture and analysis to address poverty,” said Renee Koubiadis, executive director of the New Jersey Anti-Poverty Network in Ewing, Mercer County. “There are a lot more people struggling to make ends meet than the federal poverty level shows.”

Changing the official poverty measure to a true poverty model would be tricky, said sociologist Laura Napolitano of Rutgers University-Camden: “We’d have many more people counted as being in poverty and needing services, and that’s not a politically viable position for anyone to take.”

Understanding the correct poverty level is vital because, the report points out, the cumulative, long-term consequences of poverty are enormous. An environment of deprivation creates toxic stress that affects body and brain development.

The report concludes: “Each harm seeps into the next, creating a vicious cycle making it harder for the next generation to climb out of poverty.”