The poet Robert Burns reminds us that whether one lives in honest poverty, or silks and wine, “a man’s a man for all of that.” But today, when even the elite stroll the avenues in sweat togs and flip flops, it has become has become a little more tricky to spot those honest poor who are just scraping by. Certainly, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services seems to be having trouble making this distinction. Its federal poverty guidelines insist that a New Jersey family of eight with a total income of $36,000 a year is doing just fine, thank you.

This rather surprising assessment comes from lumping all the 48 contiguous states into one standard, and giving them one figure. The Legal Services of New Jersey’s Poverty Research Institute roundly disagrees both with the federal figures, and with the method that sets them. Its own commissioned survey details how even New Jersey’s median income — the second highest in the nation — is not adequate for many families in most counties.

To provide some more realistic financial standards, and planning programs, the New Jersey Foundation for Aging is holding a “New Jersey Elder Economic Security Initiative.” This full day, free conference takes place on Wednesday, September 10, at 9:30 a.m. at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, College Road East in Princeton.

The program includes “An Overview of Real Living Costs” presented by the New Jersey Poverty Research Institute (NJPRI), an overview and update of Wider Opportunities for Women’s national project, by Ramsey Alwin; and “The Working Family Report” presented by the Center for Women & Work at Rutgers and New Jersey Policy Perspectives.

Melissa Quaal has been one of the leaders in compiling the Poverty Research Institutes’ report, “The Real Cost of Living in 2008: The Self-Sufficiency Standard for New Jersey.” As she explains it, “Compared with federal guidelines, this report is more thorough, more individualized, and takes each county as a separate entity.”

Quaal grew up in Duluth, Minnesota, inspired by a mother who was always involved in philanthropy and social causes. She attended the University of Wisconsin, obtaining her bachelor’s in sociology and economics in 1998, and then moved to New Jersey to complete a master’s degree in public policy at Rutgers University. “That’s when the regional cost-of- living differences really hit home,” she says. Since earning her graduate degree, Quaal has worked for the Legal Services of New Jersey’s Poverty Research Institute (NJPRI).

“What this report shows above all is the absolute necessity for public assistance in making our society work, and keeping it’s individuals functional,” says Quaal.

Garnering the data. Commissioned by the NJPRI, the “Real Cost of Living in 2008” was compiled by Diana Pearce, director of the Center for Women’s Welfare. Pearce has done similar reports for 34 other states.

The survey took a market-basket approach, going through each of the state’s 21 counties and determining the actual day to day, basic costs of living. The cost elements considered were food, housing, transportation, child care, healthcare, all taxes, and miscellaneous, such as toiletries and first aid essentials. Against this were balanced a household’s earned income tax credit, child credit, and child tax credit.

The family with enough income to pay these basic monthly bills, without public assistance or private loans from friends and family, might be labeled self-sufficient. But maybe not. The survey further considered the family type. Any parent can tell you that adults, infants, preschoolers, and school age children all demand different expenditures. So the study used 70 family types to create the self-sufficiency standard. The results were not overly encouraging.

Scraping by in NJ. The most recent census figures report that New Jersey boasts a $67,035 median income, higher than any state except Maryland. It sounds impressive, until one studies the Garden State Self-Sufficiency Standard. A family of four, with two adults, one infant, and one preschooler living in Mercer County, will need an annual income of $66,769 to meet the self-sufficiency standard.

This means that both adults must find a job that pays $15.81 an hour. MIddlesex is even tougher, with that same family needing to find two $16.70 an hour jobs, for an annual income of $70,557. So it’s not surprising that the U.S. Census reports poverty rates in Mercer up from 8.4 percent in 2007 to 9.3 percent this year.

“Also, you must remember that these expenses don’t take into account those large, one time expenses, which we all have, such as the car breaking down,” says Quaal. Of course, some people will be able to move to a less costly county. Camden comes is as the least expensive in New Jersey, demanding only $49,993 for our family of two adults, an infant, and a preschooler. But even here mom and dad both must find jobs with an $11.74 hourly wage. Somerset and Hunterdon are the two most expensive counties. “Where most everyone is wealthy, things cost more, and this makes it tougher,” says Quaal. Recently Hunterdon was again ranked as one of the nation’s wealthiest counties.

lt:Growing disparity. As exhaustive as this survey is, Quaal would like to see it go even deeper. She would like to see a survey that looks at the cost of making a go of it in each of the state’s towns. A county snapshot, after all, leaves a lot out. For example, while Paterson and Packanak Lake are both in Passaic County, one can scarcely compare the fiscal demands of living in plush, suburban Packanak Lake, with life in Paterson — one of the nation’s poorest cities.

Though the number of minimum-wage jobs is up, the odds of finding a sustainable $11 to $17 an hour position grow ever slimmer. Additionally, Quaal points out, the poor tend to pay more for things. Furniture is bought on layaway. Late fees and loans are a natural part of a poor family’s expenses. Used cars break down more frequently than new cars. And deferred maintenance — on everything from teeth to roofs — invariably exacts a financial toll.

Struggling to afford the basics, a rising percent of New Jersey residents continue to swell the ranks of those struggling in Burn’s “honest poverty.” Increasingly, people are finding that working hard is not enough.

As a responsible, humane nation, we have developed a large network of public assistance programs to help those teetering on the financial edge. Those who view welfare as waste might take note of one fact: 85 percent of Garden Staters receiving welfare go on the program once in their lives, stay on it less than two years, and never take support again.

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