According to the Advocates for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ), poverty among New Jersey’s children has been on the rise in recent years. Ceclia Zalkind, ACNJ Executive Director spoke to NJ Today Senior Correspondent Desirée Taylor about ACNJ’s annual KIDS COUNT report on child well-being in the state.
After looking at the statewide numbers, as well as the county-by-county numbers, Zalkind says the information paints a dramatic story of families who continue to struggle to make ends meet in our state, most especially in South Jersey.
“Usually Salem, Cumberland, Gloucester, Cape May, Atlantic — those counties at the bottom of the state tend to struggle more,” said Zalkind. “We forget New Jersey has a rural area that has high levels of poverty and family struggle as well.”
However, even the more affluent counties up north have not remained unaffected. For the third year in a row, Somerset and Hunterdon counties have seen increased rates of poverty.
“What we’re seeing is that poverty is not confined to the urban areas or even the southern counties which we’ve noticed in other years, but spreading out to the suburbs,” Zalkind said. “Somerset and Hunterdon have seen an increase in poverty, not the same numbers as you would see in a community like Newark, but for a county like Hunterdon and Somerset, a significant increase.”
Some indicators for measuring the rate of poverty include the increased enrollment for food stamps and the number of students receiving free or reduced breakfast or lunches. Still, Zalkind says numerical data alone does not provide a complete or accurate picture of the degree of poverty in New Jersey.
“The poverty level is where a family of four living at around $22,000 a year which we know in New Jersey is not enough to meet the high cost of living in our state,” she said. “If you look at low-income families, which are defined as families of four with an income of around $44,000, the data is even more dramatic. Almost a third of children in New Jersey live in low-income families.”
Zalkind hopes the findings in the report serve as a wake-up call for legislators to address the needs of struggling families. One program in particular that she would like to see expanded is providing school breakfast for children in need.
“New Jersey does well on serving children lunch, but we have a very dismal record on school breakfast,” Zalkind observed.
In examining the data from the report, Zalkind recommends a quest for short and long-term solutions.
For the immediate term, she wants to make sure that eligible families get the assistance that’s already available such as food stamps and state-sponsored health insurance for children like NJ FamilyCare.
“So that’s the first answer, let’s make sure that the programs we have are being used,” she said. ‘But long term, I think we have to look at some broader solutions that can help families economically.”