While median household income has grown overall in most southern New Jersey municipalities, the area remains one of the least affluent in the state, according to U.S. Census Bureau survey data released Tuesday.
"We may be getting poorer than the rest of the state," said Richard Perniciaro, director of the Center for Regional and Business Research at Atlantic Cape Community College. "In which case, that's not a good sign."
Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, Ocean and Salem counties are all in the bottom eight of the 21 counties when it comes to income, joined by Essex, Hudson and Passaic counties. None of those eight counties have a median household income of more than $60,000.
Atlantic and Cape May counties had incomes of nearly $55,000, while Cumberland County was $50,000. Median income in Ocean County was $59,939. Statewide, it was $68,981.
The American Community Survey was gathered from a questionnaire sent to about one in 65 households nationwide and compiled data from 2005 to 2009. It was the first census data to include information about small municipalities since the 2000 Census.
The survey, which includes statistics on a number of economic and social characteristics, provides a snapshot of how communities have fared during a period that included a severe recession. It has replaced the "long form" questionnaire sent out to every six households in past censuses.
"The sample numbers have a large variance," Perniciaro said, "but they're the best numbers out there. A lot of people are using them to try to figure out what's happened over the last several years with the economic downturn. ... We went through a boom and bust from 2000 to 2009, and the numbers are sort of bookends to that period."
Overall, the median household income in 22 of the 67 municipalities in the area increased by at least 40 percent, with 12 increasing by 50 percent or more. Many of those towns, such as Surf City and Longport, have small populations - meaning changes in a few households could significantly affect the numbers - but among the larger towns with highest percentage income growth were Egg Harbor City and Ocean Township, with 65 percent and 63 percent growth, respectively.
In Egg Harbor City, the median household income increased from $32,956 in 2000 to $54,367 during the period from 2005 to 2009. That income is still among the lowest in the area, but was good news nonetheless, Mayor Joseph Kuehner said. In addition, the city had one of the area's largest drops in the poverty rate, from 12 percent to 6 percent.
"I'm pleasantly surprised," Kuehner said. "I would say that, hopefully, the things we're doing in Egg Harbor City are attracting higher-income people to our town, and the people who live here now are hopefully getting jobs more lucrative than before. ... I hope it brings more positive attention to the town as we move forward with our redevelopment plans."
In Ocean County's Ocean Township, where median household income jumped from $46,461 in 2000 to $75,633 in recent years, Mayor Joseph Lachawiec cited the Greenbriar Oceanaire development in Waretown, begun in the early parts of the decade and up to about 1,200 or 1,500 planned units, as part of the reason for the jump in median income.
"The people moving into Waretown," Lachawiec said, "are upscale (senior citizens), and they have the income to show for it, whether through jobs or investment income. ... The bottom line is that the people of Waretown appreciate the senior citizen community."
Seniors, however, may be the reason that Cape May and Cape May Point are among area municipalities with the lowest percentage income growth - just a 4 percent increase in Cape May and a drop of 32 percent in Cape May Point, the only negative change in the entire region.
"Especially in Cape May," Perniciaro said, "retired households or people not working at the present time may have a lot of wealth, but very little income. ... (The income data) also doesn't sort out part-time from full-time homeowners (and) second homes."
Among the larger trends noticed by Perniciaro are jumps in shore towns such as Margate, which saw a 48 percent increase in income over the years, from $45,876 to $67,958.
"If you look at 2000, Margate had a lot of casino workers," he said. "In 2008 and 2009, there were hardly any. Casino workers couldn't afford to live there anymore. The housing boom, up until about 2007, rearranged a lot of populations within the county."
A similar situation took place in Brigantine, which along with Middle Township was the largest city with an increase in income of over 40 percent, from $44,639 to $64,375. Mayor Phil Guenther said the huge increases in home values - the same assessments that led to 1,401 property tax appeals in 2010 - may have been the cause.
"The real estate market did spur a lot of growth," Guenther said. "With values the way they have been, individuals had to have a large income to afford purchasing a home with some of the values we saw. ... There were (as much as) 25 percent increases in value every year. Obviously, that's changed over the last couple of years, in a negative sense."
The economic downturn was also noticable in the poverty numbers; 31 of 67 municipalities in the region saw an increase in the number of families below the poverty line. While some of those numbers are also skewed by the size of the towns - tiny Cape May Point saw an increase because it went from no households in poverty in 2000 to four in 2009 - municipalities such as Somers Point, Hamilton Township, Millville and Ventnor all saw another 3 percent or more of its households fall below the poverty line.
Overall, Perniciaro said, "South Jersey remains the poorest part of the state. South Jersey not only did not keep up with the rest of New Jersey, it's poorer in comparison."
"It makes sense," Perniciaro said, "that urban areas and more seasonal areas - hospitality-based, lower wage areas like where we live - saw the biggest impact. But it shouldn't be a consolation that some other counties did as bad as some of the ones down here."
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