Deep poverty appears to be accelerating in Delaware and Camden Counties, as the poorest of the poor scramble for rent, heat, and food.
In the city of Chester, Donald Grover, 47, and his wife, Melissa Zirilli, 43, can't do their jobs - he because the home-remodeling firm he works for cut his time from 60 hours a week to nearly nothing, she because debilitating seizures keep her from being a nurse's aide.
In the city of Camden, Mark Woodall, 49, once a construction worker and a trained cook, now makes $10 an hour in a soup kitchen as he and his out-of-work fiancee are forced to live on a street he says is thronged with armed teenagers "without morals."
"Lack of work is really, really hurting us," said Zirilli, who lives with her husband and three children on about $6,000 a year.
"Things are getting worse," said Woodall, who supports his fiancee and three children. "And the worst is nobody cares."
Deep poverty - income of 50 percent of the federal poverty level or below - appears to have grown 19 percent in Camden County and 5 percent in Delaware County between 2011 and 2012, according to data from the U.S. Census' American Community Survey (ACS), released last month.
As an example, families of five making $27,570 a year or less are living in poverty. Same-size families making half that or less are in deep poverty.
Overall, deep poverty appeared to rise 17 percent in South Jersey - the counties of Camden, Gloucester, and Burlington combined, while it fell 3 percent in the Pennsylvania suburbs. In Philadelphia, numbers suggest that deep poverty dipped 6 percent.
Experts on both sides of the river were at a loss to explain such widely divergent data, and they caution that margins of error in the numbers can render the percentages less than precise.
Still, the data are considered the best available, and ACS trends depicting increases in deep poverty dovetail with what those who help the poor see every day.
"People have lost hope," said Sharon Stone, founder and CEO of MVP Foundation (On a Mission with a Vision of Purpose) in Camden. The faith-based agency helps the poor.
"They've given up on finding jobs," Stone said.
Low-income people frequent food pantries to supplement their supplies, she said. But those in deep poverty are using the pantries "not to supplement, but to survive," she said. "And that's a different mentality."
Overall, New Jersey is suffering from its highest poverty levels in 50 years, according to the Legal Services of New Jersey's Poverty Research Institute.
"People are flatlining," said Adele LaTourette, director of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition. "Those who can get a low-wage job are at the poverty level. Those who can't are deeper in the muck."
In Delaware County, a theory has surfaced that deep poverty there is attributable to low-income Philadelphians' migrating into already-poor communities, said Alan Edelstein, executive director of Family and Community Service of Delaware County.
At the Loaves and Fishes food pantry in Prospect Park, none of the inundated workers is up on the latest conjecture, as each of them struggles to accommodate ever more clients.
Among the staff, every loaf of bread, every apple distributed is calculated as a piece of potential salvation. They know that children in deep poverty are especially vulnerable.
The paucity of food, the toxic stress and chaos of lives of meager means, can truncate brain and body development, advocates say.
The climb out of deep poverty "is so steep that some children never recover," said Kathy Fisher, family economic security director at Philadelphia's PCCY (Public Citizens for Children and Youth). PCCY conducted an analysis of deep-poverty data.
When food is available, Melissa Zirilli makes sure her children eat first.
"They are extra, extra more important than me," she said. "Anything they need is much more important than anything I need. They're my children."
Mark Woodall does without, too, spending his days worried about his three daughters, all under 14. "Homework, education - I try to stay on them," Woodall said. "But problems here in deep poverty remain the same.
Inquirer staff writer John Duchneskie contributed
to this article.