Even as poverty leveled off in New Jersey last year, it remained at a 50-year high and showed no signs of abating given persistent structural problems such as income inequality and changing employment trends that are trapping the poor, a new report has found.
"New Jersey's current and long-term employment outlooks are ominous and raise the possibility that we are witnessing profound and long-term shifts in employment opportunity, potentially requiring corresponding paradigm shifts in government economic development and antipoverty strategies," reads a 146-page annual report of the Legal Services of New Jersey Poverty Research Institute.
Poverty in 2014 was nearly 40 percent higher than before the 2008 financial crisis, according to the study. More than two million people, including hundreds of thousands of children, lived in poverty in the Garden State.
Nearly 12 percent of New Jersey households didn't have enough food. Poverty was also strongly correlated with poor performance in school, as well as with poor health.
"The safety net itself needs more intense attention from government right now," said Melville D. Miller Jr., president of Legal Services of New Jersey, citing limitations on welfare eligibility, among other things. "The key programs have eroded."
He emphasized that New Jersey's poverty trends are not "the fault of a single administration or legislature or political leader."
In South Jersey, the counties with the highest poverty rates were Cumberland (44.9 percent), Atlantic (38.7 percent), and Camden (37.6 percent), according to the latest data available.
A spokesman for Gov. Christie's office noted that as the economy has improved, New Jersey's unemployment rate has dropped, and over the governor's tenure, the state has added nearly 200,000 private-sector jobs. This summer, Christie and the Legislature increased a tax credit benefiting the working poor.
The report said key factors contributing to entrenched poverty included long-term unemployment that doubled 2007 levels and ranked third-highest in the nation; high underemployment, which accounts for people who would like to work full time but can get only part-time positions; and the state's lowest labor participation rate in 30 years - a sign that more and more able adults simply aren't looking for work.
The official poverty rate, as measured by the federal poverty line, in New Jersey was 11.1 percent, statistically unchanged from 2013. Actual poverty was likely closer to one-third of all residents, based on 2013 data, though the institute didn't have complete numbers for 2014 yet.
The institute says that below 250 percent of the federal poverty line, a person in New Jersey experiences actual poverty because he is therefore deprived of safety, food, clothing, housing, health care, or other essentials. In other words, a family with two school-age children would need $64,000 annually to meet basic needs, according to 2011 figures.
Among other shortcomings, the federal poverty line doesn't adjust for regional differences in the cost of living, the institute says.
Legal Services is a network of nonprofit corporations that provides free legal aid to low-income people.
New Jersey has regained about 75 percent of the jobs it lost during the recession, according to the study. That growth is being driven by low-wage service-sector jobs, not higher-paying manufacturing positions, which have disappeared from the Garden State over decades.
Thirty percent of the workforce earned an average hourly wage that is less than the real cost of living for a single adult: $14.41, the report said.
Median household income (about $72,000) still lagged prerecession levels and actually declined among Hispanics and blacks.
The report did offer some good news: The Affordable Care Act has helped hundreds of thousands of residents gain health insurance, for example. But even there, rising premiums and insufficient subsidies mean some are already losing coverage.
To repair the safety net, the Poverty Research Institute recommended that the government establish new emergency-housing programs and work to ensure more eligible residents apply for and receive SNAP food assistance, among other ideas.