If Newark Mayor Cory Booker runs for Senate as expected, he may have to answer questions about why the number of children living in poverty in his city has increased since he’s been in office. Advocates for Children of New Jersey’s latest report shows the poverty rate of Newark children is 44 percent. Executive Director of the organization Cecilia Zalkind told NJ Today Senior Correspondent Desirée Taylor that she was alarmed by some of the data and hopes officials will continue to work toward bettering the situation for children.
While 44 percent of Newark children live in poverty, Zalkind said a high number are also living in extreme poverty. “We actually, in this report, looked at very young children in the city to see how children from infancy to age 5 were faring and the data for those children is even more alarming,” she said. “Twenty-five percent — a quarter of that age group — live in extreme poverty.”
Zalkind said the high poverty rate is due in part to the recession. “We’ve been doing the Newark Kids Count report for more than 50 years. We saw progress being made after Mayor Booker came into office. I think the city had a rebound. Things were looking good until the recession hit,” she said. “I think for cities like Newark, other cities in our state, some of the rural areas in our state, they’re having a tougher time bouncing back from the recession. I think for low income families, the job picture may never be what it was.”
Booker was present at the unveiling of the latest report, as he has been for each report during his tenure. Zalkind said he has listened when the news was good and when it was bad and has responded with a commitment to trying to help children. “He announced the creation of an early childhood policy board to come to him with an action plan within a very short period of time as to what the city can do to take steps to improve this,” she said.
Combating poverty isn’t something solely under the responsibility of the city, Zalkind said, but added that there are certain actions officials can take. For example, research found that 40 percent of Newark children received either no prenatal care or prenatal care very late in pregnancy. “That is something we can do something about,” she said. “And I think that’s an issue that the mayor was very interested in pursuing.”
Zalkind estimates that Newark is on par with other urban areas like Camden, Paterson and Jersey City, saying the Camden data is actually a little worse. She also said rural areas are often overlooked like Cumberland, Salem and Gloucester counties in South Jersey, which are struggling with similar issues. According to Zalkind, the issues are more complicated in the rural areas because services aren’t available. In Newark, she said services are more readily accessible.
Not all the news is bad for Newark. “One of the issues we focused on in the report was lead poisoning. Twenty years ago this was a significant problem for children in Newark. We’ve almost eradicated that. The numbers of children exposed to lead or poisoned by lead have dropped significantly,” Zalkind said. “So we know with attention, focus and commitment, this can change.”
Zalkind said successfully changing poor conditions in Newark requires leadership from the state. “I think when you look at what funds programs in Newark, it’s not city funds. It’s state funds, it’s federal funds,” she said. “And I think the mayor has been and needs to continue to be a champion to make sure those funds come to Newark and support kids who are at greatest risk.”