New Jersey is one of the wealthiest states in the nation with the second highest median household income, according to the US Census. However, close to a million people in the Garden State live in poverty. The federal poverty rate for a family of four is $24,250 and given the high cost of living, a family needs twice that to stay above water. One in four families isn’t making it, according to the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey. It’s Executive Director Serena Rice spoke with NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams about combating poverty in New Jersey.
She says that one of the biggest challenges in helping to alleviate poverty in New Jersey is that oftentimes it’s hidden. “We don’t often think of people being in poverty in New Jersey because it is such a wealthy state of average. The first thing that we have to do in order to be able to address the realities of one in four people really struggling economically is to raise awareness about that reality. To make sure that we understand that poverty isn’t just the stereotype of perhaps someone sleeping on a park bench. There’s those folks in New Jersey, and we need to care for them. We also need to care for the single mom who is working two jobs in order to meet her children’s needs, the couple that are working minimum wage and therefore not even able to meet their needs, much less think about starting a family. The teachers, the preschool workers, the home health aids, all these folks that are a vital part of our economy, but are really struggling economically and we need to recognize that their struggle is as a result of our economic system and the fact that our cost of living is so far beyond what people are able to make,” Rice said.
The types of poverty that persist in inner cities is different than that of the suburbs and Rice says they present a different set of challenges. “When you talk about inner city poverty you’re dealing with a reality of concentrated poverty. So people don’t have access to the same kinds of job opportunities in the inner city as exists in the suburbs, but they do have a social service safety net that is designed to respond to the needs of folks in the inner cities, at least on the subsistence level,” she said. “There’s the challenges of lack of opportunity, of concentrated poverty, of failing schools in the inner cities whereas in the suburbs, where we are seeing a growing amount of poverty. The challenge is that folks are trying to survive on inadequate incomes in a system that’s really designed for the middle class. So they’re relying on public transportation, perhaps where there really isn’t a good system. They don’t have access to the same kinds of assistance programs like food pantries or social services.”
She says the first step to overcoming the multitude of factors that contribute to poverty is building a network. “We’re the anti-poverty network because poverty is not a problem that can be solved with just one solution. We need all of the different stakeholders joining together and working together on more comprehensive solutions,” Rice said.
The APN enlists the viewpoints of people who’ve lived in poverty, in addition to policy makers, when deciding on programs and resources. Rice says this works because “they’re the ones who actually know how it’s working in their lives. When we put forward a program, we think it’s a wonderful program. But until we talk to the people who are actually receiving the services we don’t know how it’s actually received in terms of responding to the need. And we also don’t always get the same kinds of ideas for innovative solutions out of policy thinkers.”
The APN is encouraging state legislators to sign a pledge. “We have put forward a poverty solutions pledge for all of the candidates for Assembly this year,” she said. “We’re asking everyone to sign on to recognize that poverty is a problem that affects one in four New Jerseyans, and to say that they will work with us and our partners to advance solutions.”
Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multi-platform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by The JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.