Despite these emergency and life changing efforts over the last five decades, poverty remains a significant issue throughout the United States. The national poverty rate was 19% fifty years ago and in New Jersey, almost 11% of households still lived below the official poverty rate in 2013 (US Census Bureau.) For a family of four, this is defined as living at or below an annual income of $23,550. While this is 4% higher than the national average, NJ fares far worse in other indicators that give a more accurate picture of poverty in our state. We rank 47th in having affordable housing available to people with very low incomes- 24% worse than the national average- and 47th in unemployment rates- at a rate of 9.5% in 2012 (Half in Ten Education Fund, 2013).
New Jersey Legal Services has calculated that a four person family living in New Jersey needs an annual income of between $64,000 and $74,000 just to meet basic needs.
This is far higher than the federal poverty measure of $23,550 and takes into account the reality of housing and child care costs not considered in the federal poverty rate.
While the programs created by President Johnson in 1964 and operated by NORWESCAP in six NJ counties are still critically important and relevant, it is not enough to solve the problem of poverty. Labor market issues perpetuate skyrocketing income inequality and economic insecurity for too many families in New Jersey and elsewhere. Women, children, and people of color continue to experience disproportionate rates of poverty. There are too many jobs that do not pay a living wage.
There have been some very effective anti-poverty policies, including the Earned Income Tax Credit and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as Food Stamps), which both make work pay for low-wage workers and help struggling families afford the basics when their incomes are too low.
There are other solutions such as access to education and job training in growing fields, including health care; job-creation strategies (for example, subsidized employment for low-income and long-term unemployed workers in areas that build our communityís infrastructure like school repairs); enacting basic labor standards that help workers maintain employment, such as guaranteed paid sick days; and expanding affordable and high-quality child care and pre-K, which would improve outcomes for at-risk children and enable low-income parents to work, as well as create jobs for care workers.
NORWESCAP remains dedicated to changing the lives of thousands of citizens in Northwest NJ through reducing the impact of poverty. However, we all must look to the larger economic and social realities that have led to a war that appears to have no end.
President Johnson pointed out fifty years ago that every dollar spent will result in savings to the country and especially to the local taxpayers in the cost of crime, welfare, of health, and of police protection. He envisioned a nation that could eradicate poverty among its people.
With thoughtful approaches and a national committment, his vision may still someday become a reality.