Asbury Park Press

The High Cost Of Being Poor In New Jersey

Asbury Park Press — Sunday, October 14, 2012

Written by Michael L. Diamond

More than a decade ago, Joanne Jubert made six figures as an art director for a New York advertising agency. She pursued her passion of scuba diving. She joined film societies. She bought a modest home in upscale Little Silver.

After 9/11, though, she began a slow descent on the career ladder — first losing income, then losing her job — and found life without a steady paycheck made her think twice before even buying food.

The spike in food prices at times this year "had such a tremendous impact on me that I didn't eat most of the summer," Jubert, 58, said. "I lost a tremendous amount of weight. My friends were so concerned about my well being they had me signing up with every single social service."

As Jubert found out, it can be expensive to be poor. Consumers living on tight budgets feel the squeeze of higher gasoline or food prices more than their affluent neighbors.

And in some cases, the lower the income, the higher the costs. Neighborhood convenience stores sell food for more than suburban supermarkets. Auto insurers use the often shaky credit histories of the poor to set higher premiums. And banks levy pricey service fees on consumers whose balances dip below certain levels.

Collectively, helping the poor touches everyone's life and income. By one estimate, $668 billion a year is spent on antipoverty and low-income aid programs — from Medicaid to college grants — at an average cost of $6,600 per family that is not in poverty.

But the low-income, high-price paradox is a way of life facing more people. Nationally, 46.2 million people live in poverty, or 15 percent of the population, up from 39.3 million in 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And a new study by the United Way of Northern New Jersey shows more Garden State households who aren't technically considered to be in poverty are struggling just to tread the economic waters.

Advocates for the poor say their constituents don't always know about or take advantage of the help from agencies or companies that's available. But even with social programs at the ready, the poor still spend extra for things that more affluent households take for granted.

"There's a saying that goes back a while, and it's what people in poverty face," said Mark Rank, a professor of social welfare at Washington University in St. Louis. "It's the 'heat or eat' dilemma. When you're in poverty, you really have to make tough choices."

Eating becomes a choice

Jubert can't believe she faces a dilemma as basic as whether to eat. A native of Red Bank, Jubert attended American University in Washington and then the School of Visual Arts in New York before quickly landing a job with a small design firm in Manhattan.

She lived on the Upper East Side and took advantage of all of the cultural events that New York offered. And with home prices still reasonable in the late 1990s, she bought a house in Little Silver, allowing her to be closer to her family.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the recession that followed, the opportunities for art directors dried up. She lost her enthusiasm for New York. And she took a government job closer to home, making about the same amount she made when she was 23.

Jubert worked there for 10 years, but lost her job in March after a battle with Lyme disease and what she described as a dispute with management. Since then, she has relied on her savings to pay the bills.

"I didn't think about it almost a day for my birthday. I thought that would be my present; if I could stop ruminating, that would be the best way to celebrate. I pulled it off, but the next day or two I beat the living hell out of myself for not beating myself up for a day."

Stuck in a hole

As New Jersey struggles with an unemployment rate of 9.9 percent in the aftermath of the recession, more households are in similar straits.

A United Way of Northern New Jersey study released last month found 319,900 households statewide lived in poverty in 2011, and another 829,000 households were employed but weren't wealthy enough to comfortably afford housing, food, transportation, health care and child care.

That amounted to 36 percent of the population, or 7.7 percent more than 2010, the study found.

"The means to get out of that situation are limited because more than half the jobs pay less than $20 an hour or are part-time without medical coverage," said John Franklin, chief executive officer of United Way of Northern New Jersey. "The ability to dig their way out is limited."

As lower-income residents dig, the hole only seems to fill up.


* Inflation. For those on a fixed income or receiving unemployment benefits, inflation can eat away at their limited budget.

At first glance, inflation rose in August a tame 1.7 percent nationwide during the past year, according to government statistics.

But some commonly-bought items far outpaced any income gains. Chicken rose 5.3 percent; eggs rose 5.5 percent; ground beef rose 6.8 percent; and apples rose 10.1 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Meantime, New Jersey gasoline prices on Wednesday averaged $3.79 a gallon, 14.7 percent more than a year ago, according to AAA.

First United Methodist Church in Bradley Beach opens its doors to the needy each Wednesday, offering coffee, food, clothes and kitchen supplies. And Ellen Chamberlin, one of the pastors there, said she has witnessed a subtle change.

"I see in my personal experience it's not necessarily homeless people who are coming here, but it's everyday working class people who can't go to Target or Kmart or Macy's," she said.

* Food. Low-income consumers without a car may shop at the local, but more expensive convenience store.

A 7-Eleven on the corner of Asbury Avenue and Prospect Avenue in Asbury Park recently sold Campbell's Chunky chicken noodle soup for $3.69; Hellmann's mayonnaise for $4.39; and Jif peanut butter for $3.79.

Two-and-a-half miles away, Wegmans in Ocean Township sold the same brand of soup for $1.99; mayonnaise for $3.29; and peanut butter for $3.29. If Jif was too expensive, Peter Pan was $2.69.

The difference: As much as $3.90 for three items. Fill up a shopping cart and you will quickly see how the poor pay more for food.

"It's very difficult to get the same deals as stores that buy in bigger bulk," said Jeff Lenard, vice president of the National Association of Convenience Stores, a trade group.

The discrepancy doesn't escape low-income consumers who don't own cars or have access to mass transit needed to reach out-of-town supermarkets.

"If you can get to Wegmans, it's just so much more economical," said Vanessa Boone, 60, of Asbury Park, who considers herself fortunate to own a car.

* Auto insurance. In determining premiums, New Jersey's auto insurers take into account factors such as geography and credit scores, leaving a driver living in a urban area who has a poor credit history likely to pay more.

Low- and moderate-income households spent $30 billion on auto insurance premiums in 2010, dwarfing what they spent paying off car loans or buying other types of insurance, according to a study by the Consumer Federation of America, a consumer advocacy group.

"You can see how the factors really whack poor people," said Robert Hunter, director of insurance for the Washington-based group.

The insurance industry uses more than 20 factors to manage its claims, and it has found that consumers with poor credit scores are less likely to maintain their cars and more likely to take more driving risks, said Loretta Worters, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Institute of America, a New York-based trade group.

New Jersey regulates the practice. Insurers can't use race or income in setting prices. And they need to provide exceptions for drivers whose credit scores have been hurt by unusual events such as the temporary loss of employment. But motorists can't legally drive without insurance.

* Banks. Lower-income customers, considered riskier bets, long have paid higher interest rates for loans.

Now, facing tighter regulations since the financial system nearly crumbled four years ago, some banks have begun charging fees on checking accounts. The fee can be waived if customers get direct deposit or maintain an average balance that can be at least $1,500.

After Barbara Carter was injured and lost her food services job at Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune, she gave up direct deposit — a service that allowed her to avoid a monthly fee she was charged for not keeping enough money in her checking account. The bank began to take $12 a month.

"It mattered a lot to me," Carter, 50, of Asbury Park, said. "Because $12 to me, it was like $30 (to someone else)."

"It's just one less meal that they have (money) for," said Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action, a consumer group. "Add it up and it could mean your kids' school supplies."

Salowe-Kaye said banks still offer better deals than check-cashing stations, which charge fees for each transaction.

Carol Kaplan, a spokeswoman with the American Bankers Association in Washington, said: "The banking industry can't change the prices it charges for specific products based on people's income, and I know of no other business that would do that."

Jubert said she has managed to avoid the high costs of banks, auto insurance and convenience stores, but she is hanging on for dear life, calling social services agencies to find out if safety nets apply to her.

She never thought she would be in this position, but now it's something she can't stop thinking about.

"The question is, is there any time when I don't think of where I'm at?" she said.

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