A child advocacy group's annual survey of the overall wellbeing of New Jersey's kids reveals there is a wide gap between the county where they fare the best, and the one where they fare the worst.
The results of the Advocates for Children of New Jersey's Kids Count 2012 show that child wellbeing is often, though not always, tied to wealth.
For instance, Morris County ranked tops in the group's report, which considers 15 measures that include poverty, health, safety, and education. Families with kids in Morris had the third-highest income in the state in 2010 and the second-lowest child poverty rate.
Click on a county to see its overall rank and various financial measurements that affect children. (Source: Advocates for Children of New Jersey, 2012 New Jersey Kids Count)
In contrast, Cumberland County, which had the third-lowest family income and the highest poverty rate -- 25 percent of children were considered poor -- ranked last.
"Poverty definitely has a very detrimental effect on kids," said Nancy Parello, ACNJ's communications director.
But in New Jersey, there also appears to be a geographic link, with the five lowest-ranking counties all in South Jersey.
"There's poverty in the smaller cities and there's rural poverty," Parello explained. "The transportation system is not as good, making it more difficult to get to work. And the job opportunities aren't there, either . . . I don't know that they get the same amount of resources as other parts of the state get."
Some of the findings are startling. For instance, in 16 of the state's 21 counties, at least 50 percent of families spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. In Ocean County, 63 percent of families are living in housing considered to be unaffordable to them.
The number of children enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, rose in every county, practically tripling in Hunterdon, which had the second-highest family income. That's both good news and bad: Good because it means more children are getting help, but bad because more children need assistance.
Also mixed was the finding that more children received free or reduced-price school breakfasts and lunches in the 2010-11 school year than two years earlier. However, these programs still aren't reaching all who need them: 81 percent of eligible students got a free or low-cost lunch, while only 3 of 10 eligible for a breakfast got it.
Roughly a third of children received healthcare coverage through NJ Family Care or Medicaid, an increase of more than 25 percent since 2007, which is one indication that the New Jersey Health Care Reform Act of 2008, which expanded NJ Family Care, has been effective.
"The problem of poverty is really hard to solve, but when you make a concerted effort to address the problem, you do make progress," Parello said. "Take the situation with health insurance in New Jersey. We've seen the number of uninsured kids drop every year."
ACNJ widely distributes the results of its annual survey, and last year began holding regional information sessions to explain the data and encourage officials to target resources to address some of their problem areas.
That work has begun to pay off.
Vineland, for example, has begun providing children with breakfast in the classroom, rather than before school starts, to ensure everyone gets the chance to eat something healthy.
And Gloucester County officials formed a Kids Count committee to attack those areas they can improve.
"Gloucester County, for example, has made a concerted effort to use Kids Count to address persistent issues that negatively affect children," said Cecilia Zalkind, the group's executive director. This year, Gloucester moved from twelfth to tenth place in the rankings. That's substantial progress that translates to real life change for thousands of children."
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