LOWER TOWNSHIP — Lucinda Smith knows that nervous feeling.
She feels it every fall. That’s the time when 61-year-old Smith, who helps care for her 4-year-old grandson, Jimmy Palmisano, sees her shelves getting emptier.
Smith’s $400-a-week paycheck from her seasonal campground job ends when the tourists head home after the end of every summer.
Now, she relies on about $250 a week as a part-time school bus aide and a local food bank that swells with demand this time of year in Cape May County.
“My most poor time is October to February,” said Smith, who lives in Villas with two disabled sons who receive Supplemental Social Security income and her grandson. “Everything is paid. We just don’t have extra.”
The perpetual problem in this $6 billion tourism economy is an abundance of jobs in the summer and few in the winter.
The county’s unemployment rate ballooned to nearly 14 percent last January, the highest in New Jersey, and dipped to about 6 percent in August.
This means people like Smith find work where they can. Sometimes they can’t. Sometimes it’s part time. Oftentimes, it isn’t enough or it’s barely enough.
“I’m fortunate to have both jobs and to be able to take care of my family the way that I do,” Smith said.
Jimmy hops up and down when his grandmother peels the lid off his blueberry yogurt. He scoops it up in big spoonfuls. When Smith slides a plate of sliced hot dog and ketchup next to him at the kitchen table, he slides it back and says, “Yogurt first.”
They talk at the table, and Jimmy makes her laugh.
Smith has lived most of her adult life in New Jersey except for 12 years in Wisconsin, where she made $1,200 a week with benefits at a factory that manufactured lawnmowers and snowblowers.
Rent was inexpensive there and included heat.
The factory closed. She became a banquet manager.
When a relationship with her boyfriend ended, she move back to Cape May County to be closer to her grandchildren.
Here, the cost of living is higher. The fair-market rent of a three-bedroom rental in the county is $1,464, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. In Wisconsin, a similar unit is $370 cheaper.
But Smith couldn’t find a similar job when she moved back. She found no openings for a banquet manager. Those jobs were already taken, she said.
So she finds seasonal jobs.
She lives day by day and is grateful.
Yazmin Rodriguez, 33, of Del Haven, Middle Township, works 30 hours a week, every other week, from mid-June to mid-September doing laundry at a business that supplies linens to places that need them in Cape May.
Each summer, Rodriguez’s mother comes from Mexico to look after her two children, Kamil Martinez, 18 months, and Karim Martinez, 10, while she works.
Grandmother and mother take turns each week working at the linen job, so Rodriguez can spend time with her children.
The summer helps the family get through the winter, as does the food pantry run by Caring For Kids in Cape May Court House.
“If you have extra money, you don’t spend it. ... You have to save money for rent, bills, everything,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez’s husband, Orlando Martinez, supports the family as a landscaper. She would be interested in full-time work, if she had her mother here to look after her children year-round.
But finding work is tough. Wildwood, where one of five people was officially counted as unemployed in 2015, has the highest municipal jobless rate in New Jersey, state data show. North Wildwood and Wildwood Crest ranked second and third, respectively. Even in most mainland towns in Cape May County, about one of every 10 people was unemployed last year.
And these figures do not account for someone like Smith, who works part time and is counted as employed even as she meticulously tracks her paychecks.
Smith’s budget for monthly groceries for her family of four ranges between $200 and $300. Her two disabled sons don’t work. She has not applied to see whether she is eligible for food stamps.
She sets aside each check for specific needs this time of year.
The first one of the month is mostly for food and propane. The second is for rent, car insurance, phone and electricity.
When food runs low, Smith makes use of the pantry at Bethel Commandment Church in Whitesboro.
Smith works magic in her small kitchen while her 38-pound, 3 feet, 3 inches-tall grandson waits in another room. She tries hard to convince her pickiest eater to try the vegetables, pork chops and eggs from the pantry.
She breads and cubes the pork chops to resemble chicken nuggets, the only way Jimmy will eat them. She purees green beans and carrots into his pancakes.
“I try to get him to eat fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Smith. “That’s a chore.”
During a recent morning, the Rev. Charles Farrow was giving out food supplied mostly by the Community FoodBank of New Jersey at the food pantry held in the community building of Bethel Commandment Church.
The pastor gives families a 40-pound box that includes rice, beans, raisins, spaghetti, grapefruit juice, peanut butter and boxed macaroni and cheese. He also distributes a carton of eggs and one bag each of potatoes and frozen meats.
“Come the end of September, October, we see a rising in our numbers because most of the people have been terminated due to the fact that the businesses they are working in are closing,” Farrow said.
Cape May County has wrestled with the seasonality of its economy for decades.
The core tourism industry is a blessing, said Will Morey, a county freeholder and co-owner of Morey’s Piers in Wildwood.
Morey, chairman of the South Jersey Economic District, said during the past two decades in the county, a growing number of young residents has been finding themselves unable to secure year-round, well-paying jobs.
The county has been trying to focus on other aspects of its economy — wineries and breweries, the Cape May Airport, aquaculture, open space, partnerships, small businesses and other industries.
“There are a lot of things should be done socially when it comes to hunger — governmental, nonprofit and private industry working together. Clearly, that’s part of the solution. ... Trying to provide more economic opportunity for people is a piece of the puzzle as well,” Morey said.
These issues exist in other parts of the country. Take the barrier islands off North Carolina known as the Outer Banks, which also aims to add year-round jobs to a largely seasonal economy.
“We have to have jobs that provide a living wage and give people the means to enjoy living in our area,” said Karen Brown, president and CEO of the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce and a former Cape May County resident.
At Smith’s house, with two more months of winter, she looks forward to her summer campground job, a desk job.
She stays there with her grandson from April to October and gets a warm family feeling from seeing the same people year after year.
She can use the pool there and walk to the lake.
“I can’t wait to get back,” she said.