By Briana Vannozzi
In a city with over 68,000 children, Newark is starting to make a dent in the barriers they face and the quality of life they desire. Those indicators are brought to light in the Advocates for Children of New Jersey annual Newark Kids Count report.
“It’s not for a lack of commitment on the part of the mayor’s office, on the part of the Health Department and school system, but there are just some challenges that are deep and not so easy to resolve,” said Cecilia Zalkind, president and CEO of Advocates for Children of New Jersey.
The city is showing improvement in key areas, like health care, early childhood education and high school graduation rates. But the most notable is in the health arena. Since 2012, 70,000 Newark children received health insurance through NJ FamilyCare — that’s a 26 percent jump. As of 2015, only 6.5 percent of Newark’s kids are without coverage.
“Certainly the Medicaid expansion was a big boost for enrollment of children. When a parent is enrolled, it’s far more likely that a child will have health insurance too,” Zalkind said.
“That’s what makes the proposals coming out of D.C. so tragic. Because we’ve just taken concrete steps to help our families, to help our children, ensure they have quality health care and we’re about to snatch that away from so many families,” said Analilia Mejia, state director of New Jersey Working Families Alliance.
Mejia is referring to sizable cuts that would come with the federal ACA reform and says it would go beyond health, affecting poverty levels.
The report found that 70 percent of Newark children live in low-income households. The state average is 32 percent. Compounding the issue is that 62 percent of families spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent.
“If you think about the fact that someone making the minimum wage in New Jersey is barely making $17,000 a year then it’s almost impossible to pay rent, to buy food and make ends meet,” Mejia said.
“So 39 percent of children in Newark, it’s almost one in every two, live in poverty. So family income is at about $26,000 a year for a family of four. Statewide the poverty level is around 16 percent,” Zalkind said.
But the city has seen increased enrollment in preschool, known to be linked to better educational outcomes down the road. Though the number of licensed child care centers has declined dramatically — overall capacity fell by 11 percent — there’s been a drop in juvenile arrests, partly due to New Jersey’s reform on the issue. And the number of families accessing the earned income tax increased.
“It’s exciting to see progress in health and education, but the economic indicators children living in poverty continue, I think, to undermine efforts to really help kids lift out of poverty,” Zalkind said.
Advocates for Children of New Jersey says solving these issues relies on removing economic barriers. That’s something they don’t anticipate becoming easier, as both federal and state funding for these programs hangs in limbo.