The State Of Working New Jersey

Putting the Boom in Perspective

By Leslie McCall


Recently after writing a piece in the newspaper stating that the income tax was the one tax in New Jersey that works right because it’s the one based on people’s ability to pay, I received an indignant e-mail from a fellow who said that was the most ignorant statement he had ever heard. Why, he insisted, should he be punished with taxes so much higher because he works hard? Why, to use his example, should a person making $150,000 a year have to pay more than someone making $25,000 to pump gas?

His missive was just one more reminder of the need for a new dialogue, one that is relevant to the circumstances working people face today. For one thing, what gives anyone the right to think that because they make more money they work harder? And for another, where are we going as a society if we fail to see beyond our own individual needs?

But if we are going to strive toward a new way of thinking and talking about issues basic to the survival of people, families and even society itself, the effort will have to be based on something more than emotion. The gut takes you only so far. That is where numbers come in. Stories of men and women struggling to make it out of poverty are inspirational in some cases and tragic in others but they are not enough.

The State of Working New Jersey is filled with numbers. They are numbers we all need to know, whether we are living the life of a working person or trusted with the responsibility of making policies to affect such people. And with all due respect to my e-mailing commentator, the numbers do not tell a very encouraging tale. To cut to the chase, the economic boom of the 1990s was neither long, deep nor wide enough to make a positive difference in the lives of a vast number of people in New Jersey. Indeed, these men, women and children have every right to wonder, “If that was a boom, what will a bust look like?” And now that the boom has in fact turned into a recession they are all too likely to find out.

The tables and text found in The State of Working New Jersey challenge conventional wisdom. They get below the surface of the economic boom to expose serious deficiencies. They detail differences along gender, racial, ethnic, educational and employment categories. They show that reports of widespread prosperity can mask deep chasms of inequality. Even while giving us the valuable perspective of where New Jersey stands compared to the nation they offer us scant comfort.

We at New Jersey Policy Perspective offer this report as part of the effort to change the dialogue. But not for its own sake. The real mission is to change policy. And The State of Working New Jersey points to changes across a wide spectrum. For starters, we need to restructure a tax system that, in part because of New Jersey’s over-reliance on local property taxes, calls on middle- and low-income families to pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes that the wealthiest. We need to not only mend the economic safety net but make it stronger than it has been for years. This means acting on issues like increasing the minimum wage, making unemployment and disability insurance available to more workers and initiating paid family leave.

We are grateful for the job Leslie McCall did on The State of Working New Jersey. Her report takes its place among other work produced by NJPP to shine a light on inequity in New Jersey. Katherine J. Allen provided outstanding research assistance for all the analyses presented in the report. Every other year the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute issues The State of Working America, a comprehensive examination of living standards. We thank EPI for being so generous with the time and technical expertise it provides to state-based organizations so they can do localized versions.

Not long ago New Jersey took over first place in the nation in the category of household income. But it is a hollow victory. As a state, New Jersey will not be all it can be until its people are all they can be. That is the course on which we need to embark together.

-Jon Shure

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