By Brenda Flanagan
Two-year-old Abigail’s happily unaware her economic future in Atlantic County looks dim, according to a recent Harvard study.
But her mom knows that making ends meet here was never easy and only got harder after Sandy hit and casinos closed. Families here earn the lowest median income in New Jersey.
“It’s not easy to find a job because there’s a lot of people without a job right now. And I’ve been without a job for almost two years,” said Yadira Falero.
“It’s a tough road. And it’s a tough road for us, it’s a tough road for our families, but we are here to provide support to our community,” said Cindy Hamer, County Youth Services administrator.
Atlantic County offers a nexus of support services at three Family Success Centers. But Abigail’s best bet for a solid shot at success might just be to move out, according to Harvard’s Ben Scuderi.
“You know, the clock is ticking already,” he said.
Scuderi studied children’s potential for upward mobility. Out of almost 2,500 counties across the country, he says, Atlantic ranked 2,455 — next to counties from Appalachia — only 23 from rock bottom.
“If you do stay behind in Atlantic County, kids are likely on average to have lower outcomes: lower chance of going to college, higher rates of teen pregnancy and lower earnings,” he said.
The study shows income potential for a kid growing up in Atlantic is about $4,300 less per year — 17 percent below the national average — compared to Bucks County, Pa. for example, where it’s 13 percent higher.
“It’s really imperative to try to move the youngest kids, because they’ll get the most benefit,” Scuderi said.
“That’s what they told me — move to another county because the rent is cheaper and you can get more help. But you know what? I’m used to it. I’m used to being here. So I love it here,” Falero said.
“Most of our families want to stay here. This is home. Despite the income gaps and all of the other challenges, this is home. So our job, the way we see it, is to support families in achieving their goals and dreams,” said Cindy Herdman Ivins.
Herdman Ivins runs Atlantic’s Success Centers, offering some 2,000 families employment counseling, help with housing and food and a path to self-sufficiency.
“Hope. We provide hope,” she said.
These centers operate on state funding — a dicey proposition in this economy. But without them, many families in Atlantic County couldn’t survive.
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.