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Report: Newarkers Among New Jersey's Poorest

City's poverty rate climbed 6.3 percent in 2010

U.S. Census Bureau statistics reveal there are 79,243 people living in poverty in the city of Newark.

Those numbers, which were part of the census' American Community Survey released last Thursday, mean roughly one in three residents of New Jersey's largest city are poor. And some say it isn't getting any better.

But Krystia Williams, 20, who lives at the Apostle's House shelter with her three-year-old son and one-year-old daughter, said she is grateful not to be living on the streets. "I'm blessed to have a roof over my children's head," she said. "Even though it's not my own, it's something because there are people that live under the train station."

Apostle's House, a three-story townhouse on Grand Street in downtown Newark, currently houses 32 women and children who share nine bedrooms and one bathroom. While their children play with the toys provided at the house, the women look for work.

Sandra Accomando, chief executive officer of Apostle's House, said the shelter is at capacity and its monthly food pantry quickly empties.

Newark has been hard hit by the downturn in the economy, according to census bureau statistics that show the poverty rate jumped from 23.9 percent in 2009 to 30.2 percent in 2010. Nationwide, 46.2 million Americans — or 15.1 percent — lived at or below the poverty line in 2010. That translates to an income of $22,314 or below for a family of four.

"Poverty is getting worse," said Dr. Donna Beegle, who is an author of the book "See Poverty, Be The Difference." She also is the focus of the PBS documentary "Invisible Nation" about poverty in the U.S. "The only thing that's getting better is we're talking about it more."

New Jersey's poverty rate in 2010 was 10.7 percent — with Newark ranking second among its poorest cities with a population of 60,000 or more. Camden came in first at 36.3 percent of the population living below poverty level and Paterson was third, with 28.2 percent. Two years ago, Newark wasn't faring as badly and ranked fifth in the state within that population category.

Minorities appear to be especially hard hit in Newark, with 43,951 African Americans considered poor, according to Thursday's statistics, compared to 13,679 whites living in the city. Children also appear to be among the city's poorest residents, with 30,571 boys and girls under the age of 18 considered poor.

Allan Lichtenstein is co-director of the Poverty Research Institute, part of Legal Services of New Jersey, in Edison. He says Newark's high poverty rate correlates with the unemployment rate, "There's a lot of people who aren't working and a lot of people who want to work, but there's no work."

He said the late-2000s recession has hit specific groups harder, especially African-American men. Newark's total population is approximately 277,000. The city's working population is 109,100, according to the New Jersey Dept. of Labor and Workforce Development.

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"The poverty rate lags the unemployment rate," said Lichtenstein. "Since unemployment has essentially remained over 9 percent in New Jersey and likely will remain that way for a long time, it's highly unlikely the poverty rate will go down."

Accomando said Lichtenstein's theory is dead on, "It's gotten to the point where now even some of my staff are having problems."

One of those workers is Patrice Burkett, who is the shelter's manager. Burkett said she's seen a shift in the ages of people using shelters in Newark, "There are more 18 to 23 year olds in the shelter, as well as seniors. It used to be 25 to 35 year olds, but now it's more younger kids that aren't even 21 yet."

Williams falls into that category. She said family issues caused her to move from Valley, Ala., to Newark last year. The 20-year-old said she and her two children lived with her aunt in the city until the landlord booted the trio in February because of occupancy limits. The move caused Williams to find refuge at Apostle's House. She now collects welfare checks and counts the days until she can leave.

"Being on welfare and stuff like that is something that just helps out, but isn't something you want to stay on," she said. "I look forward to getting a job and getting into school."

Burkett, 47, said Newark is spending cash to educate the poorer population, including Williams, but said since there's no jobs, "they're still sitting on welfare."

Beegle said that's because in large cities, such as Newark, where poverty rates are high, community support is low.

But Newark Mayor Cory Booker said the city is helping curb poverty through "enrichment" programs, "We're fighting poverty on different levels through grassroots and guerrilla efforts to get money in people's pockets."

He pointed to Newark Now's Financial Empowerment Center — a one-room building in the city's North Ward neighborhood that offers advice and financial guidance to residents. Booker is the founder of the center's nonprofit parent organization, Newark Now.

City statistics show the center served more than 5,000 families in 2010. Jeremy Guenter is the director of the center. He said half of the people workers help are below the poverty threshold, "We're now starting to see more working people who've seen reductions in their income."

But it's not just Newark and its residents who are hurting. While the American Community Survey shows that Newark's average household income dropped to $30,556 a year in 2010, 12.5 percent less than the previous year, it also shows that Essex County residents overall are making less money. The survey revealed that the average household income in the county fell by 6.7 percent to $52,394 and, in the state, household income dropped 2.7 percent, to an average of $67,681.

Beegle said she doesn't expect the recession to be over this year and sees those in need relying on the larger community for help, "I think when we, as communities, come together and give people avenues to fight poverty, you'll see more and more people wanting to help."

In Newark, Booker said that's what residents should be doing. "Everybody can be lending a hand right now," he said. "If you have something, you should be giving something."

Meanwhile, Williams said she's trying to escape poverty by finding a job to support her family, "Once I leave the shelter, I don't plan on coming back."

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