By Candace Kelley
Child advocate Cecilia Zalkind says she felt shocked when she looked at the New Jersey Kids Count Report. It shows a dramatic increase — many more children living in extreme poverty, meaning a family of four earning just over $11,000.
“That actually was the number that increased the most dramatically. There are about 150,000 children in families at that income level. It was just shocking,” Executive Director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey Zalkind said.
And the report finds poverty soared in 17 out of the state’s 21 counties.
“We measure a lot of indicators, family economics, health nutrition, early care and education, test scores. But I think the theme in all of those counties is the issue of poverty,” Zalkind said.
Breaking it down further, scoring highest in children’s well-being — Hunterdon, Morris, Somerset, Bergen and Middlesex counties. But kids fared poorest in Cumberland, Atlantic, Salem, Camden and Essex counties. Workers at a local soup kitchen in lowest-ranking Cumberland County say before the doors open, people line up outside and wait for food.
“A lot more families are needy due to the fact that they are out of work or their food stamps were cut. Or maybe someone left the home and there is one person now,” said Vicky Hall.
Advocates say that when many people think about poverty, they think about urban areas and cities. But there are pockets of New Jersey like here in Vineland, that are struggling.
“I don’t think there are a lot of jobs in this area right now for people and unemployment didn’t have extensions,” said Hall.
And Zalkind says in some remote, rural areas, services just aren’t as accessible. But she did find some good news in this report. Every county but one — Cape May — saw unemployment decline. Even better — 58 percent more children get a nutritious breakfast in school subsidized meal programs. Best of all, more kids are getting health insurance.
“The best indicator was the drop in uninsured children. We are the lowest that we’ve been in more than 10 years. The state has made tremendous progress at getting children enrolled in Medicaid and family care,” said Zalkind.
Overall, she says the report helps highlight areas where local and state officials can invest more time and resources to make life better for more of New Jersey’s children.