The Real Cost of Living in New Jersey

SCOPE OF THE PROBLEM

A report released by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2013 revealed that 1.35 million New Jersey residents, around 15% of the total population, are living in poverty.1 Exacerbating this problem is the fact that New Jersey residents who are employed full-time increasingly can’t keep up with dramatically rising living costs; over one million residents fall below the poverty line despite having full-time jobs.2 In a time of both increasing poverty and rising costs, residents are also facing a shrinking safety net and a declining level of benefits from both the federal and the state government.

  • Increases in Social Security benefits for retirees have diminished to their lowest recorded level and have not kept pace with increases in inflation.4
  • New Jersey residents eligible for food stamps benefits (SNAP) have also
    faced a rollback of benefits, and individuals in poverty have found it harder to provide regular, healthy meals for both themselves and their families.6
  • Deep cuts were made by the New Jersey State Legislature in 2011 into the benefits of 750,000 government workers and retirees.5 With all these factors taken into account, it is clear that New Jersey and the nation are facing unprecedented increases in the cost of living and the poverty rate.

Complicating all of these factors is the way poverty and the cost of living national and in New Jersey is measured. Household poverty in the United States is measured officially by the federal poverty level (FPL).3 Those households and families living below the poverty line are determined to be officially “living in poverty.” Those families living below the FPL are assumed to have their well-being at risk due to poverty. The same metric is used to determine which households qualify for public assistance programs such as food stamps and Medicaid. The FPL, however, is an outdated, simplistic, and flawed measure of poverty and the influence of other economic factors, such as inflation.

  • The FPL was formulated in the 1960s and the formula has not been meaningfully changed since that time.2
    • The FPL also does not calculate for geographic differences in the cost of living. There are marked differences in the cost of living not only between states but also between cities and counties within states as well.
    • Additionally, the FPL does not account for changes in household structure that have occurred since the 1960s. For example, in recent decades the percentage of households with more than one working adult has increased.
  • In response to these deficiencies, the Dr. Diana Pearce of the University of Washington has developed the Real Cost of Living (RCL) poverty metric.2
    • The RCL calculates the minimum amount of income necessary to meet basic household necessities without experiencing significant deprivation.
      • Significant deprivation describes the extent to which a family or household must sacrifice one necessity in order to be able to afford another, such as forgoing buying food in order to be able to afford rent or transportation.
    • The RCL is focuses on seven specific areas of basic family needs and costs: housing, healthcare, food, child care, transportation, inevitable taxes, and other essentials, such as clothing.
    • Overall, the RCL takes into account 70 different family types, the effect of taxes and tax credits, and the cost of traveling to and from work. It is designed to give a more comprehensive analysis of wealth, the cost of living, and the poverty level than the FPL allows.
    • Starting in 1999, the non-profit organization Legal Services of New Jersey (LSNJ) sponsored and conducted Real Cost of Living studies in New Jersey in collaboration with Dr. Diana Pearce in order to obtain a deeper understanding of the cost of living and poverty level in New Jersey.
      • This is especially important in light of the fact that New Jersey’s position as one of highest cost of living states in the country. New Jersey’s high cost of living disproportionately effects those in the middle and lower income brackets, with continuing increases in the cost of living placing a burden on those already with less resources than most.2 The LSNJ’s most recent report was published in May of 2013.
    • The most recent Real Cost of Living report released by the Legal Services of New Jersey made several discoveries related to income, wealth, and poverty in New Jersey. The report outlined some several key findings:
      • A typical four person family requires an income of $64,000 to $75,000 in order to meet basic needs, a single adult an income of at least $28,593, and a single adult with one to two children an income of at least $56,865.2
        • Housing and childcare are currently the largest cost factors in the average family and household budget, with housing taking up 46% of the budget of an average single adult and 24% for two adultswith two children.2
      • Between 1999 and 2011, the RCL has risen an estimated 18.5% to 28.9% for all family compositions, with the RCL rising the most for families with two or more children.2 At the same time, median wages and household income have actually decreased at least 4.4% during the same 12 year period.2
        • The report also reveals that increasingly a large number of households and families have incomes that are below the RCL, with the highest percentage group below the RCL being the 74% of households with one adult and two or more children.2 The lowest percentage group below the RCL are the 20% of households with two adults and two-children.2
      • One-quarter of all New Jersey workers earn wages below the statewide RCL average of $13.75 an hour, for a single adult.2 In five of the 15 employment sectors with a minimum of 100,000 workers, at least half of all workers earned less than the statewide RCL average of $13.75 an hour.2
        • The increase in the RCL in New Jersey over the past decade has led to a higher level of economic residential concentration, so that counties with higher costs of force lower income individuals and families out, result in lower poverty rates.
      • Bergen, Hunterdon, and Somerset counties were among those both with the lowest poverty levels in the state while having among the highest RCL in 2011.2
      • Similarly, Atlantic, Salem, and Hudson counties each had among the highest poverty levels within the state while also having the lowest RCL in 2011.2
      • Additionally, households and families with disabled members also experienced a higher cost of living level depending on the severity of the disability. Households with low severity disabilities and households with high severity disabilities experiencing 14 percent and 136 percent higher costs of living than average, respectively.2

POLICY & FUNDING

National

  • There has been a number of bills advanced at the federal level in the past few years dedicated to combatting the increasing real cost of living nationwide.
    • Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2012: In 2012, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives introduced and passed companion bills that raised the federal minimum wage to $8.25. The Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2012 raised the federal minimum wage from the current rate of $7.25 to $8.25 per hour by 2014, and it provides for annual increases to the rate in future years to keep pace with the rising cost of living – a key reform known as “indexing” – which ten states have already adopted. 7
      • A study released by the Economy Policy Institute attests that increasing the federal minimum wage to $9.80 by July 1, 2014, would raise the wages of about 28 million workers (up to 18% of the total national labor force)8, who would receive nearly $40 billion in additional wages over the phase-in period.8 Across the phase-in stages, GDP would increase by roughly $25 billion, resulting in the creation of approximately 100,000 net new jobs over that period.8
    • Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC): the EITC is a tax credit for low-income working families. The credit equals a fixed percentage of earnings from the first dollar of earnings until the credit reaches its maximum; both the percentage and the maximum credit depend on the number of children in the family.9 The credit then stays flat at that maximum as earnings continue to rise, but eventually earnings reach a phase-out range.9
  • For 2013, the phase-outs begin at about $17,550 for single filers and about $22,900 for married filers, and the average size of the credit is expected to be $2,828 for a family with children and $280 for a family without children.
  • EITC expansions between 1984 and 1996 accounted for more than half of the large increase in employment among single mothers during that period, researchers found, with the most significant gains in employment attributable to the EITC occurred among mothers with young children and mothers with low education.
    • Child Tax Credit (CTC): the CTC is designed in mind to help low-income working families by attempting to offset the cost of child-rearing. The CTC, which provides taxpayers up to $1,000 for each of their dependent children under age 17, is designed to help families offset the costs of raising children and is partially refundable: a family whose credit exceeds its federal income tax liability can receive a refund for the rest of the credit, however, the refund cannot exceed 15 percent of the amount by which the family’s earnings exceed a minimum earnings threshold, which is now $3,000.15

State

  • There have been a number of authoritative recommendations written and legislation passed at the state level in New Jersey related to combating rising livings costs and poverty statewide:
    • New Jersey Minimum Wage Amendment: In November 2013, New Jersey voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot question that raised the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.25 an hour in January and amends the state Constitution to tie future increases to inflation.10
  • A study released by New Jersey Policy Perspective found that increasing New Jersey’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.25 per hour would give nearly half a million working residents a crucial leg up in high-cost New Jersey while pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the state’s economy. 11
    • NJ Economic Opportunity Act of 2014 Part 1 (S928): sponsored by New Jersey State Senator Raymond J. Lesniak, the NJ Economic Opportunity bill would allocate $250 million in tax credits to rehabilitate affordable housing projects, including a $50 million set-aside for smaller developments of 25-100 units.14
    • Expanding Land Banking Opportunities (A.441/S.438): proposed legislation would allow New Jersey municipalities to designate redevelopment entities (redevelopment authorities, housing authorities, or county improvement authorities) and non-profits to act as a land bank on behalf of the municipality. The legislation is sponsored by Assembly members Mila M. Jasey, Gilbert Wilson, Timothy Eustace, and State Senator Teresa Ruiz. 14
  • Land banks allow communities to acquire and maintain vacant and abandoned properties so they can be redeveloped or reused for long-term community benefit. 14

PROGRAMS

  • Feeding America: Feeding America is the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief charity, with network members supplying food to more than 25 million Americans each year. The network of more than 200 food banks serves all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. The Feeding America network secures and distributes more than 2 billion pounds of donated food and grocery products annually.12
    • Feeding America has set a goal to source 4.3 billion meals annually by 2018.12
  • Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey (APN): Founded in December 1999, the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey (APN) seeks to prevent, reduce, and eliminate poverty in the state. Through systematic and strategic sharing of information the APN promotes dialogue, cooperation, and collaboration among people and organizations working to address poverty. APN focuses specifically on hunger, housing, and economic empowerment.13
  • Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey (HCDNNJ): The Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey is a statewide association of more than 250 affordable housing and community development corporations, individuals and other organizations that support the creation of housing and economic opportunities for low-to-moderate income New Jersey residents. The Network combines outstanding education and capacity-building programs with targeted public policy advocacy to make sure CDCs have both the technical and financial support necessary to rejuvenate neighborhoods and help residents improve their lives.16
  • New Brunswick Community Food Alliance (NBCFA): The NBCFA is a nonprofit organization located in the city of New Brunswick committed to the development and maintenance of a sustainable local food system. The NBFCA works to place food security and food systems on the city administration’s agenda to influence the local, regional and national dialog on food policy.17

Endnotes

1 Napoliello, Alex. “Report: 1.35 million N.J. residents living in poverty.” November 2013. NJ.com, http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2013/11/report_135_million_nj_residents_living_in_poverty.html

2 Johnson, Brent. “A quarter of N.J. workers fall short of rising living costs, study shows.” May 2013. The Star-Ledger, http://www.nj.com/politics/index.ssf/2013/05/tougher_times_nj_workers_strug.html.

3 Lichtenstein et al, May 2013. “The Real Cost of Living in New Jersey,” Legal Services of New Jersey,
http://www.lsnj.org/PDFs/RCL2013.pdf.

4 “Social Security cost-of-living hike likely to be barely 2 percent.” October 2012. Associated Press, http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2012/10/social_security_hike_likely_to.html.

5 Pérez-Peña, Richard. “New Jersey Lawmakers Approve Benefits Rollback for Work Force.” New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/24/nyregion/nj-legislature-moves-to-cut-benefits-for-public-workers.html?pagewanted=all.

6 Grant, Jason. “Food stamp reductions: N.J. recipients finding it harder to feed families.” November, 2013. The Star-Ledger, http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2013/11/nj_families_finding_it_much_harder_to_put_food_on_table.html

7 “Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2012.” June, 2012. House of Representatives Ledger, http://democrats.edworkforce.house.gov/sites/democrats.edworkforce.house.gov/files/documents/112/pdf/FairMinimumWageActof2012.pdf.

8 Hall, Doug & Cooper, David.“How raising the federal minimum wage would help working families and give the economy a boost”, Crossroad Programs,

http://www.epi.org/publication/ib341-raising-federal-minimum-wage/

9 “Taxation and the Family: What is the Earned Income Tax Credit?”, Tax Policy Center,

http://www.taxpolicycenter.org/briefing-book/key-elements/family/eitc.cfm

 10 Livio, Susan. “N.J. voters approve constitutional amendment raising minimum wage”, The Star-Ledger,

http://www.nj.com/politics/index.ssf/2013/11/nj_voters_approve_constitutional_amendment_raising_minimum_wage.html

11 Whiten, Jon. “The Stimulus New Jersey Needs: Raising the Minimum Wage Would Boost the Economy While Providing Better Opportunities for Hundreds of Thousands of Working New Jerseyans” May, 2013. New Jersey Policy Perspective,

http://www.njpp.org/assets/reports/work-wages/njppminimumwagereportmay2013.pdf

12“Feeding America Mission and Program”, Feeding America,
http://feedingamerica.org/how-we-fight-hunger/about-us/~/media/Files/fa-one-pager-2014.ashx?.pdf

13 “About Us”, Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey,
http://www.antipovertynetwork.org/Default.aspx?pageId=1622768

14 “2014 State Legislative Policy Priorities”, Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey,
http://www.antipovertynetwork.org/Default.aspx?pageId=1622768

15 Sherman, Arloc, et al. “Various Supports for Low-Income Families Reduce Poverty and Have Long-Term Positive Effects On Families and Children”, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities,
http://www.cbpp.org/cms/?fa=view&id=3997

16 “Technical Assistance & Training”, Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey,
http://hcdnnj.memberclicks.net/ta-a-training

17 “Mission, Vision, and Goals”, New Brunswick Community Food Alliance,

http://www.nbfood.org/about/mission/

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