Middle class in NJ: 5 steps to rebuild the ladder to the American dream
Joseph Skidmore, a retired businessman from Long Branch, could see the glimmering new development in town, but when he looked into what it would take to connect the city’s low-income residents to a more prosperous life, it was eye-opening.
They wanted a better-paying job, but they needed to focus on simply getting through the day. And the next day. And the next.
“They don’t have social capital,” Skidmore, 75, a retired businessman, said. “They don’t have people they can turn to to give them support to move forward. They’re so used to moving crisis to crisis.”
Skidmore is among several readers who reached out to the Asbury Park Press in the wake of a recent series that looked at the broken ladder to upward mobility and talked about what it will take to rebuild it.
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They want to empower the working class to advocate for themselves. They want workers and students to find mentors and make the most of social media. They want their children to have different paths to a secure life that don’t necessarily include a four-year college degree. They want to reach children early in their lives and link nonprofits to banks.
What’s at stake? The Asbury Park Press and the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey partnered with Harvard University and found New Jerseyans now in their 30s and 40s are far less likely than previous generations to do better than their parents. And their chances at a better life can be traced to the neighborhood where they grew up.
The Program for Acceleration in Computer Science Careers at Monmouth University is trying to build a path to lucrative careers.
Michael L. Diamond, Michael L. Diamond
The findings came from “The Opportunity Atlas,” a database developed by Harvard that tracked the outcomes of 20 million Americans born between 1978 and 1983. Instead of poverty and wealth, the study measures economic mobility, a key tenet of the American dream.
Not all readers were convinced action needs to be taken. The report flies in the face of the long-held American belief that hard work can overcome any obstacle. Readers said on social media that the series downplayed work ethic, grit and determination, some noting their own success stories.
But some communities are using the data to better target their social programs. The Seattle Housing Authority and King County Housing Authority in Washington, for example, are guiding families that receive rental assistance to neighborhoods that have produced more opportunities for upward mobility.
Policymakers are searching for an answer. Even though the unemployment rate is at record lows, most of the income gains are going toward the wealthy, noted John C. Williams, president and chief executive officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
“I’m acutely aware that not everyone is feeling the benefits of the economy’s good performance,” he said last week at a housing and development conference in New York. “Since the early 1980s, wage inequality has increased in the United States, but that increase in inequality has been particularly sharp in large urban areas like this one.”
How do you rebuild the broken ladder? People in the trenches had some advice:
1. Empower workers
Skidmore recently started a local version of a national program called “Getting Ahead in a Just-Gettin’-By World” to help low-income residents in Long Branch find opportunities.
A half-dozen residents meet at the Long Branch Library each Saturday morning to talk about the challenges they face. And they’re encouraged to reach out to elected leaders for changes they would like to see.
Skidmore tells them about a homeless man who couldn’t get to Monmouth County’s warming centers in Asbury Park and Red Bank on cold nights because he didn’t have transportation. He lobbied Long Branch officials to open one in town, and they agreed.
“There’s one guy who took the initiative,” Skidmore said.
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2. Find a mentor
Mentoring programs connect students and workers with professionals who can guide them through the minefields of the workplace — and, occasionally, life.
They aren’t new, but people looking for mentors now can turn to social media to connect with a virtually limitless group of potential mentors who can lead them in the right direction.
Not that there aren’t risks. Workers and students hoping to find useful connections online can get swamped by political noise, bad information and images that can hurt their self esteem, setting their efforts for advancement back.
But a good LinkedIn network can be an outlet for advice and job opportunities.
“That relationship can be solidified and flourish and lead to so many more connections and meaningful engagement,” said Deirdra Breakenridge, a Marlboro public relations executive and author of “Modern Communicators: A Guide to Effective Business Communication.”
She added: “If you do it in the right way.”
3. Promote alternative career paths
The surest bet to a well-paid career is to get an education. Workers with a bachelor’s degree made 65 percent more than workers with only a high school diploma, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But consumers have piled up $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, according to the New York Federal Reserve Bank. And skilled trades continue to offer solid, middle-class wages.
Judy Musa, 51, of Middletown, and a parent of two teens, said policymakers should consider what it will take to give students both the technical skills and the social skills they need to survive in an increasingly global economy.
“I believe there’s value in pursuing a four-year degree to be a well-rounded person, but I do think it’s become untenable to make that the only path to achievement, success and happiness,” Musa said. “We have to give our kids multiple pathways that are of equal value and are flexible to the evolving work force.”
4. Fund early childhood programs
The U.S. middle class has dropped from 60 percent of households to 50 percent since the 1980s. The middle class in France during that time rose from 60 percent to around 68 percent, said Steven Pressman, an emeritus professor economics and finance at Monmouth University in West Long Branch.
The difference? France has rolled out programs to alleviate poverty for families with young children: at least eight weeks of paid leave; subsidized child care; and after-school programs, he said.
It means parents can spend time with newborns without going into debt. And it protects children from the burden of poverty, Pressman, also an economics professor at Colorado State University, said.
The U.S. has programs for low-income children, too, such as Head Start. But only 42 percent of children eligible for Head Start can find a program with an opening for them, he said.
“Even when available, Head Start and public kindergarten cover only part of the working day,” Pressman wrote in the Washington Spectator. “Families still need childcare for the rest of the workday.”
5. Connect nonprofits to capital
Many nonprofits teeter, cobbling together money through fund-raisers and corporate and government grants, never sure of their permanence.
It has prompted some advocates to promote investments in organizations that have a social mission. They say a relatively small loan could pay off.
“Imagine if the banking system rewarded social service networks for reducing poverty and expanding opportunities for working families,” Walter Greason, chair of the Department of Educational Counseling and Leadership in the School of Education at Monmouth University, said in a tweet.
It would make life easier for J. Scott Susich, a Toms River resident who serves as treasurer for The Neighborhood Center.
The Camden organization tries to break the cycle of poverty by offering academic, athletic and arts programs for children and teens.
Its operating expenses aren’t cheap. It is housed in a 105-year-old building. It needs to hire licensed day care workers. It needs to buy food that meets nutrition guidelines, Susich said.
As treasurer, “I just tell people I’m in charge of a lack of money,” Susich said.
Michael L. Diamond has been writing about the New Jersey economy for 20 years. You can connect with him at @mdiamondapp; 732-643-4038; or email@example.com.
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