Philadelphia Inquirer, April 9, 2008: The working poor in N.J. need better pay, training

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By Eileen Appelbaum

> and Jon Shure

> New Jersey can be proud of its high number of doctorates and the fact that it leads in median household income. But these positives mask a problem with serious ramifications: One in five New Jersey families with a working adult makes too little in pay and benefits to adequately support itself.

> The number of low-income working families in the state has grown by 16 percent since 2000. In all, these families include about 750,000 mothers, fathers and children. If they were their own county, it would be New Jersey’s third largest.

> Two kinds of policies are required for these hardworking low-income families to take care of themselves and move up the ladder:

> First, New Jersey needs to invest more in raising the skills of these workers to enable them to become self-sufficient and to reduce the children raised in poverty.

> Second, New Jersey needs to do more to make sure that when people work hard, their work is rewarded fairly.

> There is no magical, seamless process by which an increase in the skills and education of workers creates higher-paying jobs. Employers need to be encouraged to use workers’ skills, raise wages, enhance the quality of jobs, and improve the effectiveness of their operations.

> Despite the need, New Jersey spends less on literacy training than the national average, and only 7 percent of adults who could benefit are enrolled in adult education. Because of funding constraints and inflexible course options, adult basic-education classes serve just a small share of those who need them. Most employed adults are excluded from such programs, in part because few federal training dollars are available for these workers. In addition, family responsibilities and a lack of access to reliable transportation make it difficult for many working adults, especially women, to attend classes.

> New Jersey needs to spend more on adult basic education and expand its many successful skills-training programs.

> Most training in New Jersey focuses on welfare recipients and dislocated workers, with a goal of quickly moving families off welfare. The result has been a steep drop in the welfare caseload, but not a similar reduction in low-income families. Self-sufficiency, and not just job placement, should be the goal.

> A job should enable a worker to support a family and build for the future. But for New Jersey’s low-income working families, having a job does neither. About 60 percent of jobs in the state pay wages below the low-income threshold. The minimum wage provides a floor for workers and a level playing field for employers, but it is effective only if it keeps up with the cost of living.

> The state should restore purchasing power by raising the minimum wage, currently $7.15 an hour, to half the average wage and adjusting it automatically so it never falls below this level. In 2007, this would have meant a minimum wage of $8.50. Employment standards should include a minimum number of paid sick days as well; 40 percent of low-wage workers in New Jersey receive no sick days or vacation time.

> Let’s be clear about who we’re talking about. Misleading stereotypes aside, these are not people who won’t, don’t or can’t work. They do work. And they live everywhere in New Jersey. It’s about our neighbors, our relatives, our friends: people who perform at jobs that often are crucial to our well-being and are essential to the state’s economy. But their jobs do not pay enough to support a family and build a future.

> Instead of planning short-sighted budget cuts, New Jersey should be investing in a secure future and a prosperous state. It would be money well-spent – spending that would reduce costs in the long run and more than pay for itself because better-paid, secure working people put more back into the state economy and treasury.

> Only by seeing the working poor for who they really are – and their plight for what it really is – can we make New Jersey the state it needs to be. Our goal should be to make sure no one who works in New Jersey is poor – and we can do it.


> To read “Climbing the Ladder: How to Invest in New Jersey’s Working Families,” a report by the Center for Women and Work and New Jersey Policy Perspective – and part of the nationwide Working Poor Families Project – go to


Eileen Appelbaum is director of the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Jon Shure is president of New Jersey Policy Perspective in Trenton.

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