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About 1 p.m. each day, the job-search app on Jennifer Brestle's Samsung Galaxy sends her an alert. "Every day, there's a little bit of hope," the Voorhees resident said. Since Sept. 30, when she lost her job at CVS after 21 years, Brestle has been looking. And looking.

Jennifer Brestle, 41, lost her job at CVS in September after 21 years. The Voorhees resident is struggling to find a new job with comparable pay.
Jennifer Brestle, 41, lost her job at CVS in September after 21 years. The Voorhees resident is struggling to find a new job with comparable pay.Read moreAARON WINDHORST / Staff Photographer

About 1 p.m. each day, the job-search app on Jennifer Brestle's Samsung Galaxy sends her an alert.

"Every day, there's a little bit of hope," the Voorhees resident said. Since Sept. 30, when she lost her job at CVS after 21 years, Brestle has been looking. And looking.

"I've had a couple offers, but they were nowhere near the money I was making," Brestle, 41, said. "Not even close. I couldn't even pay my rent."

Across South Jersey, Southeastern Pennsylvania, and the nation, people such as Jennifer Brestle are the faces of an economic recovery that for many, despite encouraging job-growth reports, has been little more than a hollow promise.

According to an Inquirer analysis of just-released mid-census estimates, median household income declined most places between 2005-09 and 2010-14.

While the reasons for gains in some places and losses in others cannot entirely be explained, the census estimates are stark.

Regionally, about three of every four residents live in suburban municipalities or Philadelphia neighborhoods where the median household income has dropped since 2009, the year the recession officially ended.

In Philadelphia, 68 percent of residents live in neighborhoods where income declined.

The rate in the suburbs is even worse, with 80 percent living in communities with declining incomes.

Between 2009 and 2014, New Jersey's median household income fell by 5 percent. That was better than the 6 percent nationally, but worse than more than half the states. Pennsylvania's decline was 3 percent.

Raymond Castro, a senior analyst with New Jersey Policy Perspective, said the Garden State's household-income picture points to a shrinking middle class, evidenced by high federal nutrition assistance enrollment and property foreclosure compared with other states even during the national recovery.

While jobs have continued to return to the economy, the paychecks they offer often pale in comparison with those from jobs that were lost.

The 8.7 million jobs that disappeared in the recession years of 2008 and 2009 paid an average wage of $61,637, according to an analysis by IHS Global Insight for the U.S. Conference of Mayors. That compares with positions created through the middle of last year, which averaged only $47,171 a year, IHS found.

"It's a countrywide phenomenon, the [wage] stagnation and especially stagnation in the middle- and lower-earning segments of the population," said James Diffley, Philadelphia-based senior director of the IHS economics team.

Median household income fell in 72 out of 99 municipalities in South Jersey and 180 out of the 239 municipalities in the Pennsylvania suburbs.

In Philadelphia, income grew in Center City and many of its surrounding neighborhoods, spurred by new development and an influx of younger residents. But citywide, median income fell by 7 percent since 2009, and by 14 percent since 1999. Both figures are adjusted to 2014 dollars to account for inflation.

While the exact whys are impossible to know given the limitations of the data, communities that enjoyed gains seemed to have some things in common, as did those that saw losses.

Gains occurred mostly in suburban municipalities or Philadelphia neighborhoods where real estate development was strong during the five-year period.

Sharp declines, conversely, were seen in former manufacturing hubs or older neighborhoods and suburbs where dense housing that once swelled with the nation's burgeoning middle class has, in recent years, become a draw for lower-income families and individuals.

The data mirror a nationwide trend.

"The center of the country, going from North Dakota straight down to Texas, is more or less the only place where we really saw any significant income gains," said Gary Wagner, regional economic adviser for the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. Riches have flowed there from the recent oil- and gas-drilling bonanza.

"What is clear is that the standard definition of an economic recovery needs some work," said David Elesh, a longtime Temple University sociologist, who suggested the inadequacy of using gross domestic product as the determinant of economic recovery.

"GDP can clearly grow," Elesh said, "while earnings stagnate or fall."

Many local residents "are part-time, but they want full-time work," Elesh said. "Others have full-time work, but they are not getting the kind of wages or salaries that they had anticipated."

And those jobs are taking longer to find. According to federal data, in October, the average length of time an unemployed person waited to find work was 28 weeks - more than half a year. In June 2009, the last month of the recession, the average wait was about 24 weeks.

And in the Great Recession and subsequent recovery, many economic experts say the poorer got - and stayed - poorer.

"The longer trend seems to be weak growth overall in the economy," said Arloc Sherman, a senior fellow for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank. "And what growth there is, not much of it reaches the middle and bottom."

Locally, the median-income picture varies from county to county and town to town. The factors, besides real estate development, include education and skill levels, the quality of local school districts, and local planning.

Since 2009, median household income in Camden County fell 7 percent - a decline greater than the 4 percent drop in Gloucester and Burlington Counties and the 5 percent drop statewide.

While Camden County had municipalities with increased household incomes, such as affluent Haddonfield, the county's median was substantially affected by low-income communities such as Camden City, where 48 percent of households make less than $25,000 a year.

According to census figures, Camden County also is home to the South Jersey communities with the steepest median household income declines - Somerdale, at 30 percent, and Lindenwold, at 22 percent.

Jay Stewart, 45, was spending some time in Lindenwold one day last week. Homeless now, he lost his job at a car wash in Cherry Hill five years ago. He made $7.25 an hour. He used to have an apartment in Clementon. He lost that, too.

"I just got to keep my head up and keep hoping for the best, that's all," Stewart said. "I try to keep my spirits up. I have no other choice."

Gloucester and Burlington Counties have plenty of communities that have experienced declines in median household income.

However, according to research by the Sen. Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs at Rutgers-Camden, both of those counties since 2005 have had median incomes above the state's. Both also have had the positive economic factors of health-care and education employment growth, as well as finance in the case of Burlington.

To be sure, there are bright spots in the census data.

One of them is Harrison Township, a former farming community that has veered toward upscale, with an appealing historic district, antique shops, boutiques, and large homes that have attracted families who can afford them. Between 2009 and 2014, Harrison's median household income rose 23 percent, to $127,875.

Sisters Hildegarde and Renee Mirenda have operated their Mullica Hill Floral Co. for 28 years. In the last few, business has increased. They've seen the changes, and changed some themselves.

"More boutique," Renee Mirenda said.

"We don't do daisies or carnations," she said. "So we do more higher-end flowers."

Mike Koestler, an employment recruiter and former township mayor who moved to Harrison 16 years ago, said zoning and planning decisions were made that helped shape what the township has became. Limited development, he said, increased the value of existing houses. They, along with good schools, attracted families, some from as far as New York, with college-educated parents.

"We have the reputation of being the high-rent district," Koestler said. "It is one of the nicest communities in New Jersey."

But even though the Great Recession hit lower-income residents and those with less education perhaps the hardest, it did not spare the earners economically above them.

"Being high-income didn't protect you," said James W. Hughes, professor and dean at Rutgers' Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. "This was an equal-opportunity recession."

Just as part-time work has replaced full-time jobs in many instances, advances in information technology cut into work for humans, including those who had occupied white-collar positions, he said.

Some of those factors may have had a bearing on the significant median household income decline in Voorhees - 19 percent since the 2005-09 survey - the fourth worst in South Jersey.

Since the start of the recession, Voorhees' median housing price - while still more than $300,000 - has experienced a downturn, possibly bringing in buyers with somewhat lower incomes, said Paul L. Smith, research project coordinator with the RAND Corp.

The economic downturn hurt some longtime residents.

Rosana Mawson, 63, a Voorhees resident, taught preschool just about all her adult life.

"I really love what I do," Mawson said. "My contention is these are the crucial years. When you get a kid reading at 4 or 5, they're good to go."

Lately, however, she has been working part-time as a private nanny. In March, the preschool she had been employed by shut down. Her husband is the main wage earner, but her salary certainly helped.

She has applied for other preschool jobs, but the pay was as low as $10 an hour - less than she made straight out of college in the 1970s. And some employers seemed reluctant.

"They want somebody 'exciting' and 'energetic.' What they're really saying is they want someone younger," Mawson said. "That's how I saw it."

Jennifer Brestle, meanwhile, has not given up. The day she lost her job, instead of falling apart, she went home and updated her resumé.

For now, she is getting by on unemployment benefits, trying to squirrel away money for repairs her car needs. She has let friends know she will do odd jobs. She hopes she will not have to leave her home by Kirkwood Lake, which she loves.

Retraining is a possibility. Getting new skills. She is willing.

856-779-3893 @ritagiordano

Inquirer staff writers Caitlin McCabe and Maria Panaritis contributed to this article.