Nobody need tell Kesica Hill about today’s South Jersey economy.

The 23-year-old Atlantic City woman works two part-time jobs, her hours fluctuate weekly and day care for her 4-year-old daughter costs more than her rent.

Hill, who works at a nursing home and for a home health agency, plans to continue schooling in hope of finding a full-time job with better pay.

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“In a sense it is hard. But at the same time, it’s life, so I try not to get upset about it. And when I look at my daughter, I know I’m doing my job,” she said.

Many economists agree the U.S. is on the path of slow recovery. There are eye-grabbing headlines on home prices escalating and the much-watched unemployment rate, now at 7.6 percent — nearly 2 percentage points lower than during the recession five years ago.

But South Jersey’s economy — driven by tourism and casinos — is different. The region has not seen the national growth in employment, wages or housing markets.

Seasonally adjusted unemployment rates in May (most recent available) were 12.9 percent in Atlantic County, 12.8 percent in Cape May County and 13.2 percent in Cumberland County — all more than 1 percentage point higher than five years ago.

In boxing, “the tale of the tape” compares fighters side by side based on size and brute measurements. In economics, it would be a tale of the line graph. And comparing the nation’s economic recovery with South Jersey’s shows the U.S. slowly adding muscle while the region struggles not to lose more weight.

Historically, South Jersey has always trailed national recoveries, said Richard Perniciaro, director of Atlantic Cape Community College’s Center for Regional and Business Research.

The area’s tourism industry needs discretionary spending to increase in other regions before it reaches South Jersey, something that typically has taken about 1½ years, he said.

“That goes back to any recession. We always lag behind. The problem with this recession is it ended years ago and everything has lagged behind,” Perniciaro said.

Atlantic City casinos face daunting and still-growing competition from nearby states that are siphoning gamblers.

And with few manufacturers and other nontourism-driven industries, there is little else to spur the economy significantly, he said.

“If you look at a portfolio, ours is retirees, federal dollars and tourism. The rest is all living off of those. It’s not a lot,” he said.

“The casino industry rattled the cage for a while and changed some of the patterns,” Perniciaro said. “People forget before that industry, what we were was Atlantic City was open for four months and Cape May was open for four months and that was it. The casino industry changes some of (that). And now we’re searching for ways to keep the year-round economy going.”

Jaime Larios, 52, of Mays Landing, is struggling to find full-time work. He was laid off as a bus driver two years ago and works part time as a poker dealer, which he has done for eight years.

“It’s either feast or famine. For the holiday week I worked 41 hours, the previous week I worked 12 hours. The week before I worked four hours,” Larios said. “It’s frustrating. Nobody’s hiring full time anywhere, and those working full time are being made part time.”

Michael Busler, a business professor at Richard Stockton College, said the national recovery is by no means robust — gross domestic product has increased about 2 percent, compared to previous recoveries, during which it had grown nearly 5 percent.

“So the economy itself is growing much more slowly than in the case of past recoveries. Unfortunately, the local economy here is doing a little worse than the national economy,” he said.

Take the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics County Employment and Wages data.

Nationally, weekly wages rose 4.7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012 from the same period in 2011.

But average weekly wages in Atlantic County dropped to $816, a decline of 1.4 percent, according to figures released in June. The area had the fourth-largest drop among the nation’s 328 largest metropolitan areas measured.

However, New Jersey as a whole saw average weekly wages rise 2.9 percent, to $1,172.

Housing statistics tell a similar tale.

Nationally, the median sale price of existing single-family homes reached $176,600 in the first quarter of 2013, up nearly 7 percent from the same period in 2010, according to data from the National Association of Realtors.

In Atlantic County, the median sale price — which means half of homes sold for more, half for less — dropped 6 percent in that time, to $201,000 in the first quarter of 2013.

In Cape May County during those periods, the median sale was down about 4 percent to $307,100. In Cumberland County, it was down 17 percent, to $128,900.

“We have a condition here different than the rest of the country because we have a declining population, high unemployment and our prices are just not recovering,” Busler said.

Busler said Hurricane Sandy has not helped the local economy, particularly because of misperceptions of the amount of damage the region sustained.

Hill, who has aspirations of being a registered nurse, also noted Sandy’s impact.

“I think we were bad before Sandy,” she said.

Contact Brian Ianieri:


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