Do you like where you live?
That’s what researchers at Rutgers University asked, and a statewide poll shows if you live in South Jersey, the answer is more likely no.
The New Jersey Health & Well-Being Poll, conducted by Rutgers’ Center for State Health Policy, found residents in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Salem counties were more unhappy with their neighborhoods compared with residents of other areas of the state.
“It’s pretty much average here when it comes to neighborhoods,” said Timothy Railey, of Somers Point. “I don’t really like this area. There’s a lot of unemployment here, and that factors into how people feel about where we live.”
Poll results revealed that while overall, 81 percent of respondents rated their neighborhoods as good or excellent places to live, people of specific geographic areas, socioeconomic status and races viewed their neighborhoods as fair or poor places to live.
About 32.8 percent of residents in the southeastern part of the state said their neighborhoods were in fair or poor condition, twice the percentage of respondents who felt the same way about neighborhoods in other parts of the state.
The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and included responses from 1,202 people recorded in October and November.
Joel Cantor, health policy center director, said the goal of the study was to see where organizations such as the foundation could make more investments, and to inform legislators and leaders who are in positions to make life better for residents.
Income played one of the biggest roles in how people felt about where they live, Cantor said. About 43 percent of people with low incomes rated their neighborhoods as fair or poor. They also gave low scores for availability of fresh fruits and vegetables, places to walk, and exercise and recreational facilities.
“If you’re living in a place where it’s harder to stay healthy, it can hurt your income,” he said. “The place you live determines, to a large extent, what opportunities you have, and personal circumstances determines where you can live. Low income is sort of a vicious cycle.”
South Jersey has some of the highest rates of poverty in the state. In Cumberland County, 17.2 percent of adults and 25.5 percent of children live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Railey, who has lived in Somers Point for a couple of years, said employment losses, such as the layoffs generated by the Atlantic City casino closings of the past three years, affect how happy people are with where they live.
Cantor said while a lot of attention is on things happening at the national level, such as health care policy and funding, it is important for people to look at what investments are being made at the local level.
“Economic distress and things like tax revenue places are able to raise feeds into it all as well,” he said. “Places experiencing high unemployment, low wages and less tax revenue, it’s hard to invest in libraries, parks and other things that make neighborhoods healthier.”
The study looked at responses among different incomes, races, citizenship statuses, health conditions and insurance coverage. People who were black or Hispanic, low income, non-citizens, in fair or poor health or uninsured had more negative views of where they lived.
In contrast, the majority of people who were white or Asian, medium to high income, citizens, in excellent health or had private insurance saw their neighborhoods as good or excellent places to live.
Nancy Cooney, 67, sees her neighborhood in Cape May Court House as an excellent place to live, which she credits to the many open spaces and parks in the county, particularly the free Cape May County Park and Zoo, recreational facilities and libraries.
While she sees the positive aspects of living in her community, she noted there are few options for major grocery stores and pointed out that neighborhoods such as hers struggle with the same addiction problems as the rest of the nation.
Cantor said researchers intend to conduct another poll this fall and a third in 2018 with different questions and analyses.
“Everybody should look at this information, because it challenges people’s preconceived ideas,” he said. “We show some things here that show maybe your very own neighbors are not doing as well.”