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Number of poor in N.J. spikes; Philadelphia shows small drop

New Jersey registered the highest increase in the number of poor people in America between 2012 and 2013, while poverty dropped slightly in Philadelphia.

New Jersey registered the highest increase in the number of poor people in America between 2012 and 2013, while poverty dropped slightly in Philadelphia.

In South Jersey, which includes Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties, an additional 12,145 people became impoverished, a spike of 10 percent that year.

In Philadelphia, while 9,000 residents moved out of poverty - a dip from 26.9 percent to 26.3 percent - the city was still the poorest of America's 10 largest cities.

The findings were compiled in the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey One-Year Estimates, a huge and diverse set of data based on a survey of people living at 3.5 million addresses throughout the nation. The survey was officially released Thursday.

In the Pennsylvania suburbs of Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties, the number of people in poverty declined by 4 percent.

Camden and Gloucester Counties showed especially sharp rises in poverty, specifically among children. Childhood poverty rose from 19.8 percent to 23.8 percent between 2012 and 2013 in Camden County.

In Gloucester County, the numbers increased from 10 percent to 13.2 percent.

Camden City remained a place mired in hard times, with a poverty rate of 42.6 percent, making it the poorest U.S. city with a population of 65,000 or more.

In Camden, a stunning 52 percent of children lived in poverty in 2013 - an improvement over 2012, when the figure was 53.3 percent.

"That's shocking," said Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of Newark-based Advocates for Children of New Jersey. "I'm discouraged by that data."

The federal poverty rate is around $20,000 for a family of three. Childhood poverty is determined by calculating the number of children in a household in which income is at or below the poverty level.

The entire state of New Jersey saw its poverty rate grow from 10.8 percent in 2012 to 11.4 percent in 2013, an increase of 63,600 people, the largest increase in the number of poor people in any state in America. Only the state of Washington had a higher percentage increase (1 percent) in its poverty rate. People in poverty in New Mexico registered the same 0.6 percentage increase as New Jersey, but the increase in the number of people in poverty was not as high.

The increase of people living in poverty was seen mostly in Essex, Hudson, and Passaic Counties, which include Newark, Jersey City, and Paterson, said Raymond Castro, senior policy analyst with New Jersey Policy Perspective, a nonprofit research group in Trenton.

Lack of jobs is the reason for the state's difficulties, Castro said.

"We don't have enough jobs, and the ones that are being developed are low-wage and part-time," he said.

Castro added that the state has the highest rate of long-term unemployment at 46 percent.

"These are people whose unemployment benefits have run out, and still don't have a job," said Sharon Stone, executive director of the MVP Foundation, a nonprofit that helps people access social services, in Somerdale, Camden County.

Devoid of benefits and unable to find sustaining work, these people slide into poverty, Stone said, "then find themselves doing something they never did in their lives - applying for food stamps."

Conditions could be even worse next year as the projected loss of about 8,000 casino jobs will affect employment rolls in the state, Castro said.

More people than ever are applying for food stamps, now called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, in Gloucester County, said Debra Sellitto, spokeswoman for the county. "There's not any one reason you can point to for the need," she said, although she believes the recession is still having an effect.

Along with long-term unemployment and declining wages, people in New Jersey are still losing their homes to foreclosure, finding themselves "thrown into a swirl of transiency," said Melville D. Miller Jr., president of Legal Services of New Jersey.

On top of that, Miller and others said, the cost of living in New Jersey is quite high compared with many other states, adding to the burdens of low-income residents.

Overall, Miller added, "the magnitude of the increase in poverty is surprising."

In Philadelphia, Eva Gladstein, executive director of the Mayor's Office of Community Empowerment & Opportunity, said she took some comfort in the trend of Philadelphia poverty moving downward.

And the decrease in childhood poverty in Philadelphia from 39.3 percent in 2011 to 36.1 percent in 2013 is "a little bit of hope," she said.

Mariana Chilton, a national expert on childhood hunger at Drexel University's School of Public Health, sees the numbers differently.

"There's nothing good to say about childhood poverty," she said.

Chilton went on to call out city government, as well as the top 50 businesses in the region and the major universities here, as "not having a sense of emergency" in educating young people, and finding jobs for them when they graduate.

She added, "We'll have less of an educated workforce than we do in 10 years because the poor can't learn, won't do well in school, and won't be employable.

"Maybe we should shame businesses and the city for not investing in better wages and family sick leave for the poor, so they can better care for their children."

With the possibility that the Democratic National Convention might be held here, Chilton asked, "How could we call for a convention when we have the some of the highest rates of poverty in the country? It's a city of shame. And we are all accountable."

The slight improvement in Philadelphia's poverty rate can't mask another problem that persists in the city: residents living in deep poverty.

Between 2012 and 2013, the number of Philadelphians living in deep poverty - an income that's 50 percent or less of the federal poverty level - remained virtually static.

"The poorest among us have made no gains at all," said Kathy Fisher, policy manager of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. She noted that the number of Philadelphians in deep poverty was 184,553 in 2012, and 184,218 in 2013.

This "core of deeply disadvantaged people are nowhere near leaving poverty," said Judith Levine, sociologist and poverty expert at Temple University.

Overall, Fisher characterized the drop from a poverty rate of 26.9 percent to 26.3 percent as "very meager."

And she added that the newest poverty rate was still quite high compared with the 23.8 percent poverty rate recorded for Philadelphia in 2007, before the recession.

"There are small improvements that show families are crawling back on their feet, but still not getting a real foothold on economic stability," she said.

In Pennsylvania, the poverty rate in 2013 matched the 2012 rate of 13.7 percent.

The rate of poverty in the Pennsylvania suburbs was mixed, census numbers show.

Poverty fell slightly in Delaware and Chester Counties; it increased 0.7 percentage points in Bucks County, and 0.4 percentage points in Montgomery County.

And even though poverty fell somewhat in Philadelphia, Levine said, "it's not a huge difference. We're a long way from celebrating."