Poverty Rate In N.J. Rises For 4th Straight Year

The Record ( — Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Record

New Jerseyans fared worse that the rest of the country last year on several key financial measures, as incomes continued to drop, poverty increased and health insurance coverage showed below-average improvement.

Data released Wednesday by the U.S. Census Bureau revealed that New Jersey's median household income decreased by 4 percent from 2010 to 2011, after accounting for inflation. It marked the fourth year in the last five in which the spending power of households in the state dipped, following a pre-recession high in 2006.

While New Jersey's median household income of $62,300 remains one of the country's highest, last year's decline outpaced a drop of 1.5 percent nationwide.

At the same time, the number of people living in poverty grew slightly in New Jersey but decreased nationally. The number of New Jerseyans without health insurance dropped, but at a slower rate than in the rest of the country.

"This is not unexpected," said Rutgers University demographer James Hughes. "The numbers reflect an extraordinarily weak recovery from the recession."

He said the state had fallen behind in part because some of its major strengths — financial services, telecommunications and the pharmaceutical industry — have failed to recover as well as economic sectors that bolster other parts of the United States.

"We have been lagging for 10 years compared to the country," he said.

A more stark assessment came from Melville Miller, president of Legal Services of New Jersey, who called the state poverty rate "very troubling," especially since it has climbed steadily since 2007, to 11.4 percent from 8.7 percent.

"This really is pretty frightening stuff," said Miller, whose agency operates the New Jersey Poverty Research Institute.

The census report is one of two being released this week and next with data on various economic measures. Next week's will have more detail for states and counties and probably will show slightly different results because it draws from a separate survey. But it is likely to show trends similar to those in Wednesday's release, which found that in New Jersey:

The report drew varied reaction from experts.

Hughes said he "wouldn't lose any sleepover it ... because we are still one of the highest-income states in the country and we still have an excellent overall jobs base."

Jeff Brown of New Jersey Citizen Action, which lobbies for health care reform, said the health insurance numbers show a "mixed picture," reflecting more employers able to provide health insurance but also more families falling within income limits for a state program that provides insurance for poor children.

For Miller, the data was ominous. The poverty figures, he said, not only mean more struggling families, he said, they far understate actual poverty because they use national benchmarks that fail to account for the region's higher cost of living. For example, a more accurate measure than the official poverty threshold, he said, was the 2.1 million people in New Jersey living on less than twice that standard.

The official rate "is laughable except that it isn't a laughing matter," he said.

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