June 26, 2019 | 87° F

REYES: High cost of raising children hurts New Jersey communities

Opinions Column: And (Economic) Justice For All

Children are the very foundation of our communities and society. Our families welcome children every year — we nurture, care for, teach and love them with the hope that they will develop into happy, healthy and well-informed members of the world. Despite the unfortunate reality that many children do not have this supportive foundation, our communities should be able to step up to ensure that all children can thrive and meaningfully contribute to society as a whole. But in far too many states, including New Jersey, the cost of raising a child tells a concerning story of income and wealth inequality, segregation, personal financial hardship and economic stagnation.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently released the latest installment of the Expenditures on Children by Families, 2015 report. Since 1960, the USDA has tracked the costs of raising a child, examining expenses by “age of child, household income, budgetary component and region of the country.” The national average expense for a two-child, middle-income, married household, raising a child from birth through age 17 is $233,610. Low-income families are projected to spend around $174,690. For the urban Northeast region, which encompasses New Jersey, the average expense spikes to $253,770, making it the most costly region to raise a child. Where does all the money go? The largest share, 29 percent, goes to housing followed by food, which 18 percent, child care & education, 16 percent, transportation, 15 percent and health care at 9 percent. The remaining funds go toward clothing and miscellaneous supplies. But to families with children with college ambitions, this figure does not include the cost of a college education, one of the largest expenses excluded from the USDA’s estimate.

What does living in an increasingly expensive region mean for the mobility, welfare, development and health of New Jersey’s families, many of whom are still feeling the effects of the 2008 recession? In New Jersey 1.2 million, or more than one in three, families are not earning enough for a basic family budget, which means they cannot afford the basic necessities to survive. These include people in communities across the state that we all know: The public school teacher working a second job, the grocery store cashier that works for two chains and the bus driver who also works for a ride-sharing company. While we understand that the 11 percent of N.J. households living in poverty are grinding day in and day out, another 26 percent are Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed people (ALICE). The United Way of Northern New Jersey coined the acronym to describe people who often struggle to find the money to pay for monthly expenses to support themselves and their families. These are people that, despite working full-time and earning incomes above the Federal Poverty Line (FPL), continue to come up short to pay for basic needs. This has serious implications for neighborhood demographics, ultimately excluding certain groups from wealthier, whiter communities if left unchecked. For too many families, particularly low- and middle-income and families of color, living well in particular communities is out of reach.

Financial insecurity leads to a number of difficult decisions that impact the health and vitality of New Jersey families, the very backbone of our state’s economy and workforce. As a community scholar with the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, I have worked with the Jewish Renaissance Foundation and Community Development Corporation on a variety of supportive housing and neighborhood revitalization policies in Perth Amboy. One such program was “Project Healthbuild” which offers low-income and senior households the opportunity to have their homes repaired, addressing critical structural and safety issues. The idea that these families have been put in a position to choose between putting food on the table or purchasing new clothes for their growing children over maintaining the integrity, health and safety of their homes is absolutely outrageous. Families should not have to pit basic necessities against one another in their monthly budgets, and they should have the resources to cover important miscellaneous living expenses.

Tools, research and reports like those provided by USDA and the United Way of Northern New Jersey are vital to telling a more comprehensive, realistic picture of financial insecurity in New Jersey and across the country. We need to better understand and convey the needs of our children, families, businesses and neighborhoods to important public, private, non-profit and political actors making the dire decisions that affect us all. As we organize, educate and advocate for systems and policies that strengthen and revitalize our communities, we need to push for measures of economic adequacy, and move beyond imperfect poverty measures, by telling this story — our story.

Thalya Reyes is an Edward J. Bloustein School master's candidate for public policy and city and regional planning. Her column, “And (Economic) Justice For All,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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Thalya Reyes

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