Fallout from the last recession — and continued economic weakness — in South Jersey was evident in county employment and income statistics released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau.
The numbers show a region that has yet to recover from that recession, which officially ended in June 2009 but whose deep impact still lingers across the nation.
“This is a long-term problem,” said James W. Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, of continued unemployment and of any hope for a recovery. “Nationally, it’s going slowly and some fear it’s already stalled.”
One of the most striking statistics in the 2010 American Community Survey released last week was the poverty rate for Atlantic County — 15.4 percent of families with related children younger than 18 lived in poverty last year. That’s up from 8.8 percent from 2005. The recession began in December 2007.
Poverty rates in other South Jersey counties also were up in the same period, but not as dramatically as in Atlantic County. Cumberland County traditionally has a high rate, and in the 2010 report its 21.1 percent rate was the highest of any New Jersey county.
The Atlantic City area is particularly problematic because of the continuous decline of the casino industry, Hughes said.
“The principal economic locomotive is slowing down consistently,” he said. “A turnaround really isn’t imminent.”
The casino and tourism industry is built on people spending discretionary money, but when they lose confidence in the economy they hold onto their money, he said.
Between 2005 and last year, the Atlantic City casino industry shed about 10,000 jobs, a decline of about 23 percent, state data show. At the same time, industry salary and wages fell to $921 million last year from $1.1 billion in 2005. If casino pay had kept pace with inflation since 2005, it would have totaled $1.2 billion last year.
Joseph Weinert, senior vice president of Spectrum Gaming Group in Linwood, said he expects the industry to decline through at least the early part of next year and eventually bottom out.
The new Revel casino project — slated to open next year — could bring thousands of jobs, but its potential success could take away from the other casinos, causing them to cut positions.
“Employment is dependent on the future of the industry’s performance,” Weinert said.
Tough economic times in Atlantic County have forced many residents to seek help in ways they’ve never had to before. Fran Wise, director of community investment and partnerships for the United Way of Atlantic County, said there has been a huge increase in the number of people who need assistance with basic necessities such as food, utilities or rent.
“We’re seeing a new kind of person in need,” she said. “We are seeing more people who have never had to ask for assistance before have to ask for it now. They find it very difficult. Very hard personally to do that.”
The percentage and number of people unemployed in South Jersey have risen sharply in the last five years. In that period, the percentage of people who are unemployed in Atlantic County rose to 12.6 percent from 7.6 percent, with the number of unemployed growing by 7,548 to 18,170, the 2010 American Community Survey shows.
Unemployment statistics in the survey cannot be directly compared to data collected by the state Department of Labor or Bureau of Labor Statistics because of differences in definitions and methodology. The census data offer a glimpse of the county-level employment situation.
Cape May County’s unemployed percentage was 11.5 percent, up from 6.3 percent in 2005; the percentage in Cumberland County was 14.1 against 9.6 percent in 2005 and in Ocean County the percentage nearly doubled to 11 from 5.6.
“It’s everyone. There is no typical,” Margie Barham, executive director of Community FoodBank of New Jersey’s Southern Branch said of those seeking assistance. “You get all kinds of people now who are in need. Professional and blue collar workers.”
The amount of food the organization has distributed has nearly doubled from 3.6 million pounds of food in 2005 to 7.1 million pounds in 2010. The organization provides food to about 250 agencies in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and southeastern Burlington counties.
The Rev. Charles Wilkins, pastor of Bethel AME Church in Millville, provides a soup kitchen and job placement and training for residents in Cumberland County through the church’s nonprofit organization, Bethel Development Corp. The soup kitchen, which operates four days a week, serves about 4,800 plates a month, an increase of about 40 percent in the past five years, Wilkins estimated.
“Much of that is a direct effect of cuts in wages and loss of jobs,” he said, adding the facility is also serving more families.
More people in the area are noticing what is happening in their communities.
Douglas Jewell, founder of Free Meal Center, a soup kitchen in Middle Township that may open at the beginning of next year, said he already has 400 volunteers lined up to help operate the soup kitchen.
“People have realized it’s gotten worse and worse,” he said. “The need is more than ever.”
Neill Borowski contributed to this report.
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