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In Morris, More Struggling, But There's Help

Those who once provided donations and time now often the ones seeking help.

It's been a rough time for the eighth-richest county in the United States.

Many middle-class residents have found themselves at the end of their assets, and in need of help feeding their families, keeping the heat on, and paying everyday bills.

Joining the 3.5 percent of the county's population who live in poverty—based on federal standards of an annual income of approximately 21,000 for a family of four—were the professionals, bankers, truck drivers, public employees, sales clerks and skilled manufacturing workers.

County officials speak about a rush of first-time applications for unemployment benefits. Food pantry operators speak of families who once volunteered and donated to their centers appearing in the weekly lines to get food and  stretch the family budget.

Lower-paid workers join the homeless daily at Morristown's to have meals, helping them save enough to pay that $1,500 a month rent.

Each day this week, Patch examines the lives of those whose economic truths are hidden by statistics that say Morris County's a place for the rich and comfortable, in "Morris' Working Class."

The fall can be sudden and harsh. The recovery can be slow.

That was on the mind of Freeholder John Murphy this week as he told his fellow board members about his tour of the new in Morris Plains.

The pantry will officially open the newly built center Tuesday after moving from space in the county complex on West Hanover Avenue in Morris Township.

Murphy said what impressed him was that the center was not just a food distribution facility, but had classrooms, including a kitchen, to teach clients about home finance, budget management and preparing cost-saving, nutritious meals.

The new food pantry is in a corner of The Central Park of Morris County that the freeholders dedicated to non-profit agencies. The goal is to create a social service mall for clients.

Murphy, the board's liaison to human services, said this effort is one way to support the effort to "give our residents a hand when they need it."

That sentiment is echoed by nonprofit officials: Many of their programs are not meant to be permanent, but designed to jump-start a client's recovery. Emergency shelter and transitional housing mean exactly that. The programs are designed to provide a solution for an immediate problem, and they come with the responsibility on the client's part to make the effort to get ahead.

Joanne Bjornson, executive director for the Interfaith Council for Homeless Families of Morris County, said her program and others offer immediate help in the form of shelter, if needed, and then long-term solutions that allow families to shift from the emergency conditions to stability.

But the help comes with requirements that the families tangible efforts to their transitions, she said.

Many of the requirements that guide social services today can be traced back to the 1996 federal welfare reform laws. The basic change in the law set parameters for work, education, job training and self-sufficiency skills that come with a five-year maximum benefit period.

Bjornson said the agency's clients get basic home financial training from professional volunteer accountants.

"The idea is to provide them with some fundamental home finance skills so they can better manage their money," she said.

Savings accounts are established, and clients are asked to create goals for the use of the finds.

For Jay Maggio of Morris Township, it was the local agencies that got her off the street, into drug rehabilitation, a job and housing. The counselors at the Interfaith Council for Homeless Families of Morris County gave her direction and hope, Maggio said.

It was as simple as teaching her how to manage a bank account, she said.

Maggio, who works 12 hours a week at the county complex on West Hanover Avenue, said she is saving to buy a car.

Blair Schleicher Bravo, executive director of Morris Habitat for Humanity, said the agency's new homeowners are required to met certain financial obligations to handle the ownership of a home, once their needs have been determined. Once selected, a family is required to contribute "sweat equity," or 300 hours of labor on the family's home or another Habitat project.

Morris County has seen an nearly decade-long development swoon that preceeded the 2007-09 recession. A wave of foreclosures displaced families, even in the county's richest towns.

Home prices stagnated, while property values cratered: In 2009-10 the total value of all taxable property in the county fell by $1 billion, according to the county's board of taxation. Then in 2010-11, it fell another $1.4 billion.

Towns revalued property to stave off a wave of tax appeals, and, along with schools, laid off workers to help squeeze the annual budget under the state mandated 2 percent cap on year-to-year tax-levy increases. In the past five years, Morris County's government has reduced its workforce by 16 percent.

It is easy to enumerate these big changes: Since 2006, the county lost 17,496 private and public jobs. Among that total were 1,193 workers from the transportation and utility sector; 453 financial workers; 1,321 from the professional and business services sector; 596 in retail trade; and 683 from manufacturing.

The Interfaith Food Pantry had nearly 12,000 visits in the first six months of 2011 after several years of double-digit growth. The county recorded among the largest percentage increases in recipients for general assistance and food stamps in the state in July and August.

In July, Morris saw a 30.6 percent increase in the number of applicants for the New Jersey Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the renamed food stamp program.

That month, 14,538 adults and children were receiving food stamps.

Statewide, 771,724 persons were receiving food stamps in July, a 17.1 increase since July 2010 that added 112,513 persons to the list.

In August, Morris had the second largest increase in the number of applicants for general assistance, up 10.9 percent. The increase occurred in a month when statewide the number of general assistance recipients dropped by 642 to 52,955.

The assistance programs are not just about housing and food.

One key effort on the part of the United Way of Northern New Jersey, AARP, NORWESCAP (a multi-county nonprofit), the federal Internal Revenue Service, and Newark Now is the annual drive to get low- and moderate-income residents across the region to apply for the Earned Income Tax Credit

Last year the agencies and their volunteers helped file 5,998 free tax returns, worth $925,000 in tax credits.

Jodi Miciak, United Way director community impact for income, said the additional money helps families pay routine bills, gives them a bit of a financial cushion, and perhaps the chance to save for that larger purchace.

A target for this effort is the 30 percent of Morris County residents who earn between $20,000 and $60,000 a year—a group a United Way study showed grew by 28 percent over the past two decades, while Morris County's population grew by just 14 percent.

The Poverty Research Center of the Legal Services of New Jersey said the self-sufficiency wage for a single person in Morris County—the anual earning that allows a person to meet all of his or her financial responsibilities—is $29,371; for two adults with two preschool children, that figure rises to $76,016 annually.

In launching a drive for tax-preparation volunteers, John Franklin, United Way's executive director, said, "We know that that a family of four earning less than $45,000 in northern New Jersey is fighting to make ends meet and needs every penny to avoid slipping into poverty. You know them as your local supermarket cashiers, mechanics, and child care workers. And the refunds brought back to their wallets are returned to our local economy."

Yet for all of the huge employment and economic changes, a family's well-being could be determined by an illness, a death, an accident, as easily as a change of employment status.

Michelle Roers, chief professional officer of the Morris office of the United Way, said there are many circumstances that can lead to a "traumatic situation." They include, besides accidents and illness, the need to care for an aging parents or sibling, mental illness or disability, she said.

To aid families in such circumstances, Roers said, the United Way of Morris County in 2005 created in a partnership with the county human services department, the Caregivers Coalition, which provides a way for individuals and families to get help to address these life-changing conditions. She said the Morris model is being adopted in three other United Ways under the North Jersey umbrella (multiple United Ways, including Morris, merged earlier this year), and being adopted nationwide.

In speaking to the Morris freeholders his week, Roers looked around the room at the 30 or so attendees and said, "any of you could be a caregiver."

Up to 106,000 adults in Morris County are caregivers, she said. Nationally, one of three adults is caring for another person.

The problem, she said, the majority of unpaid family caregivers don't identify themselves in that role, and as a result can become isolated and overwhelemed.

"Caregivers often put their own health, physical, emotional and financial, at risk," she said.

Addressing those individual needs is one aspect of assistance provided by the Caregiver's Coalition, Roers said, but perhaps unseen is the larger economic cost of this care.

Eighty percent of long-term health care is provided in American homes, she said, with a value of $450 billion annually.

The cost to companies for lost productivity has been measured between $17 to $33.6 billion annually, Roers said.

"This can have a significant impact on a community," she said.

Unlike a job loss, the caregiver's role might linger for years.

Unaddressed, the financial costs of family care-giving could erode a family's economic situation and the family could slide toward poverty, Roers said.

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