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Daily Record (New Jersey), July 21, 2008: In Morris, cupboard is often bare

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By Michael Daigle
Daily Record

More Morris County families — some with higher incomes than have been seen in the past, and many who have never needed help before — are reaching out to government assistance programs for food and shelter, officials said.

For the first three months of this year, Morris was among the top three counties statewide for the largest percentage increase in people signing up for food stamps, general assistance or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

The county had the largest percentage increase in families seeking food stamps and in the number of new TANF applicants, a state report said.

It is the first time in recent memory that Morris has appeared at the top of that list, officials said.

“We are seeing a lot of people who might be classified as working poor, families with incomes up to $36,000,” said Rosemary Gilmartin, executive director of the Interfaith Food Pantry in Morris Township.

Between January and April there was a 30 percent increase in the amount of food distributed, compared with the same time period last year, Gilmartin said.

Of concern, Gilmartin said, is that the food pantry staff is seeing people who have never used the service. The new needy families include working professionals and people with college degrees.

“The need is working up the (economic ladder),” she said.

State officials cautioned that while the percentage increases were higher in Morris, it is a reflection of the generally lower numbers of participants in those programs here than in other counties.

Jackie Tencza, spokeswoman for the Division of Family Development of the state Department of Human Services, said that in a county such as Morris with 493,000 people and a poverty rate that hovers near 3 percent annually, a small number of new applicants for government assistance can produce a large percentage increase.

For Morris, the 18.8 percent increase in the number of food stamp cases from April 2007 to last April represented 571 new enrollees; the 7.2 percent increase in TANF cases represented 23 families, and the 29 percent increase in general assistance cases represented 157 new applications.

For comparison, Essex County in that same time period, had 8,365 TANF enrollees, the largest number in the state, which represented a 3 percent drop. The smallest number of TANF cases was reported in Hunterdon County, with 75.

According to the April report from the family development division, the top three counties were:

* For food stamps: Morris, up 18.8 percent; Ocean, up 18.1 percent; and Hunterdon, up 14.7 percent.

* TANF: Morris, up 7.2 percent; Somerset, up 6.1 percent; and Passaic, up 4.6 percent.

* General assistance: Ocean, up 37 percent; Morris, up 29 percent; and Somerset, up 19.9 percent.

Neither Tencza nor Gilmartin could pinpoint an exact cause for the increases. The actual numbers might be too small and too recent to determine a trend, they said.

Tencza said, however, that statewide in anecdotal reports, it appears that families with higher incomes are applying for government aid.

She said that nationally, states are reporting higher welfare numbers.

USA Today in May reported that 27 states had declared increases in their TANF programs.

The newspaper also noted a concern: that the 3.9 million people nationwide receiving TANF often are adults who can not work for physical or emotional reasons, or older adults caring for young children who are not expected to work.

In New Jersey, of 37,699 TANF cases reported in April, 10,111 were supporting children only, where an adult in the home was not eligible for aid. In Morris, of 314 TANF cases, 91 were child-only cases.

But Gilmartin said it is becoming clear that higher food and fuel prices, combined with Morris’ traditional high cost of housing, are starting to strip away the safety margin in some household budgets.

“We see an increase in people from Landing and Flanders, where there are still apartments,” Gilmartin said. “They moved to those areas and Hackettstown for less costly housing, and now $4-a-gallon-gas is an issue. How do they do it?”

Mary Jo Buchanan, director of the county’s human services department, said that one figure to watch is the increasing number of food stamp applications, because it could indicate a change in the region’s economy — especially if it grows quickly or substantially.

Gary Denaman, director of the county’s office of temporary assistance, said his office began to see an increase in aid applications when gas topped $3.50 a gallon.

The volume is a concern, as is the types of people applying, he said.

“People like truckers are losing their jobs,” Denaman said. “One man applied for food stamps because he lost his job. In 20 to 25 years he had never been out of work.”

Denaman said that in nearly five years in his county office, he has never seen Morris in the top three for food stamps or for general or temporary assistance, even though the numbers have been increasing over the past few years.

The most recent report from the state Labor Department showed that while Morris County’s unemployment rate was 3.9 percent, the lowest in the state, there have been announced job cuts, such as the loss of 2,100 employees at the Hanover facility of Alcatel-Lucent, which is shifting its operations to New Providence.

Statewide, the unemployment rate is 5.3 percent. Jobs have been lost over the past year in a wide range of occupations, including retail, transportation, publishing, manufacturing and finance.

Jobs increased in health care, nursing care facilities, personal and laundry services, and professional, scientific and technical services.

Whatever the cause, Gilmartin said, the food pantry is supplying much more food than in the past.

The pantry’s spring newsletter reported, “In the first quarter of 2008 we distributed 190,066 pounds of food. This is 31 percent more than last year.”

Gilmartin said the pantry is buying more of its food — instead of getting donated food — because the system that supplies food banks, school lunches, and food pantries has been changed by the use of corn for ethanol. That raised the basic prices of many items; shipments overseas of food that was nearing its expiration dates because foreign governments allow the sale of older food, and higher demand.

Other county agencies also are seeing changes in their operations that they said could be signs of tougher times.

Susan Robinson, spokeswoman for Homeless Solutions, which operates a shelter and transitional housing, has seen a 30 percent jump in applications compared with last summer, in what usually is a slower time. The agency also has received 213 application for 12 units of affordable housing it is building on Abbett Avenue in Morristown.

At the Interfaith Council for Homeless Families of Morris County, executive director Joann Bjornson said they are seeing more single women. But overall it has been slower than usual, except for requests for gift cards for gas or food.

“Summer is a slower time, but this is kind of odd,” she said. “Still, coming to a shelter is a hard choice, and not the first choice.”

Bjornson said the price of gas and food is a factor for her clients, They are asking for gas gift cards to get to work, and are using donated Wal-Mart gift cards for food, she said.

“They usually have a margin of $20 to $30 a month,” Bjornson said. “Housing costs are always a factor. Then there is the transportation gap. The lack of public transit leaves few choices: Food or fuel?”

Bjornson said the county could see the impact in six months “if people on the edge get tipped over.”

If tenants can’t pay rent, evictions take a couple of months and the whole process could take six months to play out, she said.

Gilmartin said the real culprit is the increasing cost of living that impacts the middle and lower middle class residents greatly.

The county’s self-sufficiency wage — a measurement designed by the Legal Services of New Jersey Poverty Research Institute — has increased sharply for an average family, Gilmartin said.

That figure –which adds up the cost of housing, food, insurance, taxes and health care — estimates the income needed to pay for them.

In 2005, for example, for a family of four with a preschooler and a teenager, the self-sufficiency wage was $53,237. In 2008, the figure was $61,296.

According to the 2006 Census report, the median household income in Morris County is $89,587.

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