EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Timothy Allen was standing outside the Social Security Administration building Monday afternoon, getting some fresh air while waiting for his number to be called.
Allen, 36, of Atlantic City, receives disability benefits and food stamp assistance, but he says it’s not enough.
“You can’t even live off of that,” Allen said. “I go out and try to hustle and make ends meet as best I can.”
Tammie Ross, 55, of Egg Harbor Township, has been receiving Supplemental Security Income through the SSA for the last 20 years and receives food stamps. On Monday, Ross said she is barely getting by on her benefits. A disability also keeps her from working.
“It has been really bad, losing my electric. I almost became homeless,” she said. “It’s hard to afford what I have.”
Allen and Ross are among the 885,828 New Jersey residents receiving NJ Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits as of August, and struggling to get by.
Christine Zellers, southeast senior program coordinator for Atlantic County SNAP-Ed, said she has seen a growing number of SNAP beneficiaries who say this is the first time they have had to receive assistance.
“There has definitely been an increase. A lot of the schools are seeing jumps in the percentage of people receiving free and reduced lunch,” Zellers said.
The latest data from the state Division of Family Development show that Atlantic and Cape May counties have had the highest caseload increase in the state over the last year, up 4.5 and 9 percent respectively, while almost every other county has seen a decrease.
According to a new report, southern New Jersey residents face poverty levels higher than many of their northern counterparts. The annual Poverty Benchmarks 2015 report released this month by the Legal Services of New Jersey Poverty Research Institute shows Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Salem counties with poverty levels above 35 percent.
Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said the reasons are obvious.
“It’s not a coincidence that Cape and Atlantic (counties) are there, because we have an economy that’s based upon tourism, so we literally have a three-, four-month economy,” Levinson said.
Since January 2014, four casinos have closed. Levinson said that as the Atlantic City casinos began to face competition, job losses were inevitable.
“It affected both of our counties,” he said. “We lost 8,000 jobs and that of course is difficult to absorb.”
Cumberland County Freeholder Director Joe Derella said his county has been hit hard for a long time.
“We’re well below the national norm and the state average for income,” Derella said. “This is not necessarily a new problem for our county.”
The report finds a correlation between poverty and educational attainment, growing income inequality and wage decline. In addition, a disproportionate number of single women, black residents, Latino residents and children now live in poverty.
While the numbers grow, the programs in place to help the vulnerable are dwindling, the report finds. In 2014, the state announced the end of its extension to the emergency rental assistance program. The report also found that only 77 percent of eligible residents participated in New Jersey’s food stamp program, which could be related to the amount of time it takes for benefits to be processed. In 2013, New Jersey was ranked by US Department of Agriculture as third worst in the nation for processing time of benefits, which, by law, are to be processed within 30 days after an application is submitted. In 2014, the state improved slightly to sixth worst with a timeliness rate of 76.5 percent. Implementation of new processing system hangs in limbo due to many delays.
Evelyn Benton, director of the Community FoodBank of New Jersey-Southern Branch in Egg Harbor Township, said they have seen an 11 percent increase in food distribution over the last year.
In the 2013-14 fiscal year, the local food bank, which serves Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties, distributed more than 7.68 million pounds of food. In 2014-15, that number rose to 8.63 million pounds.
Benton said she believes one factor in the increase was a congressional rule change last fall that tied supplementary SNAP benefits to households that receive at least $20 per year in utility assistance. The state Legislature came up with a bill to raise the minimum utility assistance in order to guarantee the federal assistance in June 2014, which Gov. Chris Christie vetoed that September. Christie reasoned that “distribution of benefits without regard to actual heating and cooling expenses as envisioned in this bill is clearly impermissible under federal law.”
Benton said her youngest sister, who has a developmental disability anc cannot work, saw her SNAP benefits reduced from $181 per month to $44 per month because of this.
However, almost half of those who receive help are working.
Statistics from the Community Food Bank of New Jersey in 2014 reveal that 47 percent of families receiving food have at least one household member with a paying job. Of those not looking for work, 66 percent are disabled and 29 percent are retired. Fifty-six percent receive food stamps and 74 percent live below the federal poverty line.
Benton said some things can be done to help.
“Well, certainly having food-stamp benefits that actually allow people to be able to afford to buy food. Buying food is a much better solution because it brings money into the local economy as opposed to just giving out food,” she said. “When you’re putting dollars into local supermarkets, that’s helping the economy all the way around.”
Second, she said, would be a living wage for people, which is more difficult to achieve.
“In our area, I don’t know what kind of solutions there are. There aren’t decent jobs, there aren’t manufacturing jobs. There’s minimal technology jobs. The hospital is probably our biggest good local employer,” Benton said. “It’s almost 50 percent of the people that live in Atlantic County alone are on some kind of assistance.”
Benton said it’s a misconception that people on government assistance are living easy.
“That is absolutely a false accusation,” she said. “There reality is these people are struggling to put food on the table.”