The telltale signs that local residents are struggling range from the minor, perhaps keeping an older car a year or two longer than planned – to the catastrophic, losing one's home and the middle class lifestyle that came with it.
Regardless of one's view on whether the "Great Recession" is in a state of recovery or still raging on, there is no question that local residents have been greatly affected and continue to struggle, a report released last week shows.
United Way recently released the report, five years in the making, to document the number, location and experiences of New Jersey families whose members are working, yet "who live each day one crisis away from falling into poverty."
The report is known as the ALICE project, which is an acronym for "Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed."
The findings are startling.
Ocean County, at 33 percent, had the highest percentage of households that fell into the ALICE category of any county statewide. The study showed it takes $60,697 for a family of two adults, an infant and a toddler to afford the basics - nearly triple the U.S. poverty rate of $22,113.
In Brick, specifically, between 21 and 30 percent of households fall below the ALICE threshhold, which the group also called its "Household Survival Budget."
The families studied make more than the official poverty level, but "way less than an individual or family needs to sustain a reasonably healthy standard of living."
According to 2010 U.S. Census data, the median income for a household in Brick was $65,129.
When we asked Brick residents on our Brick Patch Facebook page Tuesday if they were struggling, many answered that they were.
Joanna Brandao-Henderson said her family lost their home in Brick, and even after cutting back on expenses across the board and shopping at discount stores, her family still struggles.
"We are trying to keep our heads above water, but if the prices go up anymore, who knows what will happen," she said. "My whole family packed up and moved to Florida. We may have to move there too."
Besides the most commonly-discussed reasons for New Jersey's high cost of living – relatively high property values, as well as a high property tax burden to go with them – the doubled unemployment rate from 4.3 percent to near 9 percent in the wake of the recession, as well as an evolution of the job market to more service-sector jobs from professional and skilled positions is to blame for struggles, the study said.
"Long- term structural changes to the job market, including underemployment and the dominance of the service sector, are also cause for concern."
More than 70 percent of Ocean County's jobs projected to be created through 2018 will be what the state Department of Workforce and Labor Development term "low skilled."
According to the report: "Future income opportunities will be limited for ALICE households due to high underemployment, continued dominance of low-paying jobs, and the lack of demand for jobs requiring more education."
While the picture painted by the study may seem bleak, its authors offer some suggestions for repairing the financial conditions of New Jersey's struggling families: invest in automation to reduce the need for low-skilled workers and encourage growth in skilled and professional occupations in the public and private sectors; and increase the number of jobs that pay the "Household Survival Budget wage" of $14.62 per hour.
The group also suggested increasing the availability of so-called "microloans," small loans provided to struggling borrowers with little credit history or collateral, to help bridge tough times and lessen the burden on social welfare program budgets and private charitable organizations.