New Jersey finds itself on the front lines of the war on poverty: Opinion

By Troy Singleton

With the holidays often placing an emphasis on the haves and have nots, I am reminded of these words from President John F. Kennedy: "If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."

This simple, yet profound statement underscores the paradox that has befuddled government leaders since his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, famously declared war on poverty. How do we help the less fortunate?

New Jersey is acutely impacted by this dilemma as we recently saw poverty spike to a 52-year high, according to a report released by Legal Services of New Jersey this year, with more than 2.7 million New Jerseyans — nearly one-third of the state’s population — now living at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level, putting them in true or actual poverty as they grapple to meet basic necessities.

Poverty is an immoral and scandalous circumstance that undermines our state and our country’s ability to meet its future obligations and needs. We can no longer afford to let this blight on the American spirit go unchallenged.

As the face of poverty has evolved and morphed into the faces of our families, friends and neighbors, a sober imperative confronts us.

The challenge before the current crop of government leaders is to reboot the conversation on poverty by replacing words like sequestration with job creation and investing in the economic security of our families.

In one of the richest states in the country, issues of educational inequities, lack of housing diversity, inaccessible health care and economic fragmentation are allowed to become signs of the status quo.

How do we fix this?

It begins by investing in what we know works to elevate our collective station in life. Education, job training and pro-growth economic expansion policies have historically demonstrated their worth in elevating folks from impoverished to empowered.

There are a number of proposals I have sponsored that are working their way through the Legislature now to help these critical poverty-fighting elements, education being the greatest influencer.

We just sent a bill to Gov. Chris Christie to explore full-day kindergarten, a key component in providing children with an early head start and a better shot at success. I’ve also sponsored a bill package to create a new approach to public education that would boost the performance of students and teachers and attract quality educators to critical subject areas like science, technology and math, where employment opportunities are in demand.

Another bill would increase teaching opportunities for minority men to help provide high-quality teachers in chronically challenged schools. This is a great way to help an underrepresented portion of the population find a solid, stable career path while serving as positive role models for students in failing districts, many of whom are minorities.

There are also a number of existing state programs we must continue to prioritize because they can make a difference for struggling families forced to choose between food on the table and paying a bill. Funding for grants to help construct and rehabilitate affordable housing, to help low-income families pay utility bills and to help fund local Head Start programs are all valuable tools in the war against poverty.

However, more can be done, like making saving for retirement easier, less expensive and more secure. We need to stabilize family income and realign the discrepancy between the growth in productivity and the lack of growth in wages so that all workers and their families benefit as our economy becomes richer.

Poverty is the great contaminant that stains the fabric of society and shackles our quest for shared prosperity.

With the nation’s economic forecast beginning to strengthen, it’s time to demand an economy that allows every citizen the same opportunity to compete. By embarking on this path, we will generate a prosperity that ensures economic gains benefit not only those at the very top of the economic ladder, but also those who struggle most to get on.
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