Family poverty levels for Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties are among the highest percentages in New Jersey, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics released Tuesday.

All three rank in the bottom eight of the state’s 21 counties when it comes to families with children. Cumberland County is the lowest in the region.

Census data also show that median household incomes have dropped since 2007, falling 8.1 percent in Atlantic County, 7.3 percent in Cape May County, and 1 percent in Cumberland County.

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The growing poverty levels are stressing charities throughout the region.

Cape May County is expected to open its only daily soup kitchen soon. The Atlantic City Rescue Mission’s Family Life Center reports it has 11 rooms set aside for 11 families. Some southern New Jersey food banks are seeing more demand for food.

At the Bethel AME Church on South Fifth Street in Millville on Tuesday, volunteers opened the doors of the soup kitchen to find a long line of hungry adults and children.

Donald James, 35, of South Third Street, was there. He’s a regular at not only Bethel AME’s soup kitchen, but also at soup kitchens run by other churches.

James brought his 2-year-old nephew, Michael Williams, for a meal of beef stew, rice and green beans. He said bringing his nephew to the soup kitchen on occasion is one of the few ways he makes sure the youngster will get something to eat.

“He’s happy,” James said of Williams. “As long as he has food in his belly, he’ll be all right.”

The boy sat on a steel folding chair, eating a piece of chocolate cake with a plastic spoon. Much of the cake was smeared around his mouth.

“Look at him,” James’ girlfriend, Amber Davidson, 26, who eats at the soup kitchen just about every day it is open, said as she cleaned the child’s face. “He’s a greedy guy.”

James said he’ll be back at the church today for a food bag that includes bread, peanut butter, jelly and eggs. He’ll look to other churches for other bags of food.

“It’s a matter of survival,” James said. “You’ve got to put food on the table. The kids are hungry.”

James said he lost his job as a computer repairman early in the economic crisis. He has since held several jobs, but nothing that pays enough to buy the food and clothes his children need.

The jobs — many paying only $10 per hour — available in Cumberland County go pretty fast, he said.

“For every one job that might open, there are seven doors that close,” James said.

Davidson is also unemployed, saying she can’t find work because of a learning disability and a medical condition involving her back.

Davidson said getting money for clothes for the children is just as hard as getting money for food. The approximately $700 per month she gets in food stamps and public assistance doesn’t go very far, she said.

Much of the children’s clothing comes from thrift stores and charities, she said.

“Sometimes people will give us something,” Davidson said.

In Cape May County along Route 9 in Middle Township sits a former restaurant that will one day become the Free Meal Center, a daily soup kitchen to serve those in the state’s southernmost county.

The meal center expects to open in February, said Douglass Jewell, a local Realtor behind the effort. Jewell said the need for a daily soup kitchen in the area is apparent, particularly for one open on Saturdays to feed children on school-lunch programs.

“Being Realtors, my wife and I get into a lot of houses, we get inside other people’s lives where others might not have that kind of access,” he said.

“We’re real concerned about the trends we’ve been seeing. … Those are alarming figures in a county that has $4 million vacation homes overlooking the ocean,” Jewell said.

The figures and poverty levels speak to job loss in a region with a largely seasonal economy that relies on discretionary spending that declined during the recession, local economists said.

“It is striking in our area,” said Margie Barham, of the Community FoodBank of New Jersey’s Southern Branch. The Egg Harbor Township-based organization serves Atlantic, Cumberland, Cape May and southern Burlington counties.

Last year, 5.7 million pounds of food were distributed, a 36 percent increase from 2008, Barham said. There was a significant jump in 2008 as well.

“Every time you hear large groups of people laid off and unemployment running out, they’ve got to get their food somewhere so they turn to us,” she said. “We had people come in here who said last year I was donating to the food bank, now I need to visit (it).”

Census statistics reveal the ongoing trend that southern New Jersey counties, which have the state’s lowest populations, also place among the highest percentages of poverty for families with children

In Cape May County, 14.3 percent of families with children were in poverty in 2009. In Atlantic County, it was 13.6 percent. In Cumberland County, 18.3 percent, according to census data. The state average was 10.7 percent.

“We start with a seasonal economy anyway and a lot of people were sort of near the tipping point and went over to the poverty level,” said economist Richard Perniciaro, director of Atlantic Cape Community College’s Center for Regional and Business Development.

“Generally, these southern New Jersey counties are all at the bottom of family income in the state anyway. When you take the poorest counties in the state and the highest unemployment since the ’90s, you add those together and you get a bunch of people in poverty.”

The two big economic engines in the region — the casino and tourism industry and the construction industry — took big hits, Perniciaro said.

The effects from Atlantic City’s casino industry are particularly apparent, said Sharon Schulman, director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

There’s not enough new industry to absorb job losses, which took place in many of the lower-paying jobs to begin with, she said.

“If you had two people working and suddenly you have one or none and you have minimum-wage jobs, you’re starting to hit the poverty level,” she said.

Contact Brian Ianieri:

609-463-6713

Contact Thomas Barlas:

609-226-9197

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