September 21, 2009: Good news, bad news in new census data

New Jersey’s poverty rate is rising while median income is dropping, according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Approximately 787,000 New Jersey residents had incomes below the federal poverty level in 2008, an increase of 45,000 from 2007. For a family of three, that means trying to provide children with a roof over their heads, adequate health care and a nutritious diet on an annual income of $17,163. The 2008 figures do not reflect the sharp economic downturn this year, and thus the real numbers today are almost certainly worse.

The state’s rising unemployment rate is certainly a contributing factor. New numbers released September 16 show that the rate increased to 9.7% in August, reaching a 33 year high. This large increase is likely to translate to higher poverty numbers for 2009.

The new data also pushed New Jersey from second to fifth in the nation for median income. Between 2006 and 2008 median household income declined by $7,214 (10.1 percent), making it the largest dollar decrease in the nation. Still, the state’s current average income ($64,070) is well above the national average of $51,233.

So what’s the good news? The number of uninsured in New Jersey declined by 11 percent, according to the Census Bureau. One reason for the drop can be attributed to the state’s FamilyCare program, which offers free or subsidized health insurance coverage to children from low-income families and sometimes covers parents as well. While every state uses a combination of federal and state money to cover low-income kids, New Jersey’s program offers subsidized coverage to families and children with income up to 3.5 times the federal poverty level.

The new census data clearly show the need for continuing aid to help the unemployed and maintain vital services in the face of growing need. Through investments in health care and education, and by rebuilding communities, New Jersey can create jobs and renew its economy. By failing to act at this critical juncture, more vulnerable people will be consigned to poverty.