More South Jersey residents are qualifying for state and county programs, the number of people using food stamps is on the rise and waits for low-income housing are getting longer.

And no one believes it will get much better any time soon.

Side by side with the increase of local residents living below the poverty line — an income of less than $11,170 for an individual or less than $23,050 for a family of four — comes the strain on local organizations, public and private, devoted to providing for those in need and helping them rise above it.

“I think we’re seeing a whole other group of people who never really had to rely on (programs),” Diocese of Camden Catholic Charities Executive Director Kevin Hickey said. “But because of high unemployment and exhausting their unemployment benefits, now they’re in a position where they need assistance, they need a safety net.”

Doug Gershuny, executive director of South Jersey Legal Services Cape May, spoke of the “changing face of poverty.”

“More people are cut off from the middle class as a result of the economy,” Gershuny said. “Poor people are working but not able to make ends meet. And it’s more difficult to help because we’ve seen so many budget cuts.”

In Atlantic County, nearly 14 percent of the population was listed as living below the poverty line, an increase of nearly 2 percentage points from 2007 to 2010 (2011 numbers are expected in September). Comparing that number with the 2010 population, that comes out to about 37,338 residents below the poverty line.

Meanwhile in Cape May County, 11,088 residents (more than 11 percent) were below the poverty line, an increase of more than 2 percentage points, and 53,620 residents (9 percent) in Ocean County, an increase of nearly 3 percentage points.

Cumberland — which has the highest poverty rate in the state at 17 percent — saw its poverty rate decrease less than 1 percentage point, to about 26,672 residents.

“Overall in New Jersey, the poverty rate tracks the unemployment rate, more or less,” said Alan Lichtenstein, director of the Poverty Research Institute, a branch of Legal Services New Jersey. “At the peak of the recession, when unemployment started to level off, the poverty rate continued to go up.”

In Atlantic County, the number of residents who have applied to the Women’s Health Clinic has increased by more than 15 percent each year for the past two years, Atlantic County spokeswoman Linda Gilmore said. Applicants must have no insurance and cannot make more than $26,000 individually or $44,000 as a family.

The area has also seen issues with senior citizens, Gershuny said.

“Now they’re struggling with income, forced to go back to work and struggling to keep homes,” Gershuny said. Many others “are above the line of eligibility for certain programs, but at the same time, they’re not making ends meet.”

Cumberland County Division of Homeless Diane Strazyk said the number of people seeking food has grown dramatically, “so that means people who are home-cooking meals are having a hard time paying grocery bills.”

For people with serious income issues, Strazyk said, “sometimes grocery bills are the last one you want to pay. You have to pay the electric, you have to pay the mortgage, but people will skimp on food. Some pantries get completely cleaned out.”

Rental rates have also gone up, while wages and employment remain stagnant, she said, and the wait for low-income housing complexes has lengthened from one to two years.

Nancy Hickman, the parish and community services coordinator at Catholic Charities in Atlantic City, also cited high rents.

“A lot of times you can’t pay it, but you can’t prove you can’t pay it,” Hickman said. “They’re between a rock and a hard place. We used to be able to pay $300 to $400 to get someone out of a crisis, but when you’re paying $1,200 rents, it’s very hard for an agency like us to assist.”

Catholic Charities is “fortunate” in that it receives donations from individual churches as well as groups such as the United Way, but she also cited the Community Development Block Grant, which in 2011 was $10,000. That’s why the idea that government can cut back on aid, and let private charities pick up the slack, doesn’t jibe with reality, Hickey said.

Lichtenstein and the Poverty Research Institute, citing the rise in food stamp usage, also expressed concern about future cuts and rollbacks to such programs.

Another worry was that the Earned Income Tax Credit, designed to help low to moderate wage earners, was not restored in the new state budget as had been expected. That tax credit provided an average of $2,117 to more than 550,000 people in 2010 before it was cut.

Advocates for Children of New Jersey Executive Director Cecilia Zalkind was thankful that recent state budgets “ used a budget scalpel, not sledgehammer,” and also cited the continued presence of the Children's Health Insurance Program, or CHIP. But she, too, was worried about decisions such as not restoring the Earned Income Tax Credit, as well as threats to the food stamp program.

Contact Steven Lemongello:

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