SOCIAL ISSUES

NJ Kids Count: ‘Money really does matter’ in childhood outcomes

BY Michael Hill, Correspondent |

Count Paterson resident Shamene Gomez’s family of five among those living below the poverty line in Passaic County.

“I’m disabled, waiting for my income, SSI, to come in. So I’m only receiving welfare, but it don’t last during the whole month,” said Gomez.

So for nine years, Gomez has been coming to CUMAC’s food pantry and more in downtown Paterson for groceries, household and hygienic products and more.

CUMAC and its team of volunteers serve thousands in Passaic County, collecting canned and dry goods and fresh fruits and vegetables from corporations and supermarkets in a county identified in the NJ Kids Count 2018 report as having the highest poverty rate.

Fifteen percent of the Garden State’s 2 million children live in poverty, that is in a family of four earning a little more than $24,000. Salem and Cumberland tie for second in the report. Passaic tops all counties at 28 percent.

“The big take-away is money really does matter,” said Cecilia Zalkind, president and CEO of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, the organization that compiled the statistics.

She says a 15 percent poverty rate is not bad compared to Alabama and other states, but to get an accurate picture of the Garden State’s challenges, the report compared all 21 counties.

For example, median income — $95,000 in the state. Nearly $153,000 in Hunterdon County, but $42,000 in Cumberland County.

Zalkind says that speaks to housing affordability and households that spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent – 42 percent do in Morris, 57 percent in Cumberland.

“I think that always is to me is shocking, and this year it came home to me when you think about half of families in our state struggle,” she said.

The report found only 50 percent of third graders reading at or exceeding expectations.

“If we only have half of the children of this state reading at or exceeding expectations that should be a red flag,” Zalkind said.

The report also found improvements in higher median incomes, fewer juvenile arrests, teen pregnancies and uninsured children. Again, the overall picture belies the closer county to county comparisons and what happens in places like Passaic County and the challenges nonprofits like CUMAC confront every day.

CUMAC says its mission goes well beyond being a food pantry. It’s about empowering lives.

When Hector Soriano lost his job, he turned to CUMAC. He volunteered and went through the nonprofit’s job training program and then landed a job.

“I’ve walked through here a hundred times and I’ve never known that they can change people’s live like that,” said Soriano.

“We need to get to the point where somebody knows they can line up outside our door, but then can think to themselves, ‘You know what? Today I’m good. Today I don’t need CUMAC because I’m able to buy this myself and I’m able to take care of my family,'” said CUMAC Executive Director Mark Dinglasan.

It’s a goal that – according to the latest Kids Count report – several New Jersey counties are trying to meet.