South Jersey is a tough place to be a kid.
That's the familiar theme of this year's New Jersey Kids Count report. The annual study, compiled by Advocates for Children of New Jersey, brings into focus the ways in which poverty affects the state's most vulnerable citizens - our children.
As in the past, southern counties ranked near the bottom of the state in measures of children's health, safety and education because they also rank near the bottom of the state economically. Cumberland County, where families with children have the lowest median income in the state and where 24 percent of children live in poverty, ranked 21st in measures of child welfare. Atlantic County, where 22 percent of children live in poverty, ranked 20th. Cape May County improved its rank from last year's report, with fewer children living in poverty. But that may be because low-income families are leaving the county, which has the state's highest rate of unemployment, 13 percent.
As the report makes clear, poverty has a direct impact on nutrition, health and educational achievement. Education, in turn, has a direct impact on levels of poverty.
These aren't just abstract ideas. The day after the Kids Count report came out, Cumberland County officials who are trying to combat a spate of recent homicides in the county emphasized the link between crime and the lack of educational and economic opportunities.
The interconnected and persistent problems associated with poverty can sometime seem insurmountable. But the Kids Count study also points to ways in which public policies could help alleviate those problems.
Doing something about the state's high housing costs could dramatically improve the lives of poor children. Right now, more than half of the low-income families in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean counties spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. Increasing affordable child-care options would also help these families. National standards say that families should spend about 10 percent of their income on child care. But it costs the average New Jersey family with an infant or toddler nearly one-quarter of their income to place a child in a licensed care center.
The Kids Count report shines a light on the kind of changes that could help make a difference for children living in poverty. Policymakers ought to be paying attention.