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Club America coach Santiago Solari pose with Stockton University the men’s soccer team during campus tour Tuesday Sept 14, 2021. Solari played for the Ospreys soccer team in 1994, then played professionally in Argentina. Edward Lea Staff Photographer / Press of Atlantic City

Census: Relief payments staved off hardship

WASHINGTON — Massive government relief passed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic moved millions of Americans out of poverty last year, even as the official poverty rate increased slightly, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday.

The official poverty measure showed an increase of 1 percentage point in 2020, with 11.4% of Americans living in poverty, or more than 37 million people. It was the first increase in poverty after five consecutive annual declines.

But the Census Bureau’s supplemental measure of poverty, which takes into account government benefit programs and stimulus payments, showed that the share of people in poverty dropped significantly after the aid was factored in.

The supplemental poverty measure was 2.6 percentage points lower than its pre-pandemic level in 2019. Stimulus payments moved 11.7 million people out of poverty, while expanded unemployment benefits kept 5.5 million from falling into poverty. Social Security continued to be the nation’s most effective anti-poverty program.

“This really highlights the importance of our social safety net,” said Liana Fox, chief of the Census’ poverty statistics bureau.

That finding is likely to resonate in a divided Congress, where President Joe Biden’s $3.5 trillion “Build Back Better” plan faces uncertain prospects. Two anchors of last year’s COVID response — enhanced unemployment benefits and a federal eviction moratorium — have expired, adding to concerns.

The Census reports released Tuesday cover income, poverty and health insurance, and amount to an annual check-up on the economic status of average Americans. The reports are based on extensive surveys and analysis.

During last year’s epic economic collapse, employers shed 22.4 million jobs in March and April, the sharpest decline since records began in the 1940s. Weekly applications for unemployment benefits topped 6 million in a single week in April, by far the highest on record. Since then, the economy has recovered three-quarters of those lost jobs, but the U.S. still has 5.3 million fewer positions than before the pandemic.

A basic barometer of the economic health of the middle class registered the shock.

The median — or midpoint — household income decreased by 2.9% to $67,521 in 2020. The median is a statistical dividing line, with half of American households having lower incomes and the other half, higher. It was the first statistically significant drop in that measure in nearly a decade.

Driving the erosion, the report found that the number of people with earnings from work fell by about 3 million as the number of full-time year-round workers contracted by some 13.7 million.

But below those toplines there was a story a story of haves and have-nots.

People who held onto steady year-round jobs saw an increase in economic well-being, with their median earnings rising 6.9% after adjusting for inflation. People on the lower rungs of the job market, those with part-time jobs or trying to stay afloat in the gig economy, lost ground as median earnings decreased 1.2% for workers overall.

Despite widespread concerns that the pandemic would make millions more Americans uninsured, health coverage held its own in 2020, the Census found. More than 91% of Americans had insurance, but 28 million were uninsured.

But Larry Levitt of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation said the numbers point to some glaring exceptions. For example, 38% of poor working age adults in the dozen states that have not expanded Medicaid were uninsured. Biden’s budget bill would provide a workaround for more than 2 million caught in that coverage gap.

“It would be hard to find a group that struggles more to get access to affordable health care,” Levitt said.

Congress passed five bipartisan COVID-19 response bills last year, totaling close to $3.5 trillion and signed into law by then-President Donald Trump. This year Democrats pushed through President Joe Biden’s nearly $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan on party-line votes. Its effects are not reflected in the Census report.

Though some of the federal aid last year was delayed for reasons from wrangling over costs to problems with distribution, on the whole it insulated American families from economic disaster that would have compounded the public health crisis. Some groups were left out, such as people not legally authorized to be in the country.

As Americans fought over measures such as mask wearing and closing down businesses and community life, lawmakers of both parties were motivated to take dramatic action, said economist Bruce Meyer, a University of Chicago expert on poverty.

“You had Democrats who were very focused on helping those who were unemployed and hurting, and you had Republicans who were willing to do many things to help the reelection of their president, so there was a confluence of incentives, or of desires, by politicians on both sides,” he said.

Trump ultimately lost reelection but the Census report provides evidence that’s relevant to the current debate over Biden’s $3.5 trillion social infrastructure plan, said public policy analyst Robert Greenstein of the Brookings Institution think tank.

“For people who have a cynical view that nothing much government does works effectively, particularly on the poverty front, it will be harder to maintain that view,” said Greenstein, who founded the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit advocating on behalf of low-income people.

The Biden economic plan extends tax credits for families with children, which is seen as a strategy for reducing childhood poverty and its long-term consequences.

At Atlantic City sneaker store for small-biz week, Murphy defends upcoming unemployment tax hike

ATLANTIC CITY — Sneaker collectors are a diverse group, and the owners of Swapz AC have no trouble finding people interested in the collectibles they sell, or those wanting to buy 10-year-old Nikes for hundreds to thousands of dollars, store co-owner Ed Wilson said Tuesday.

Wilson, 35, and three co-owners gave Gov. Phil Murphy and Mayor Marty Small Sr. a tour of their store Tuesday for National Small Business Week. Small described Swapz AC as the first locally owned minority business at Tanger Outlets The Walk.

Although they had to close their store during part of the COVID-19 pandemic, the owners told Murphy that once they reopened business was good.

Small businesses in New Jersey were hit hard by the pandemic, Murphy said, but he stressed the state has provided more direct aid to them than any other state but California and New York.

That’s one reason he has decided not to use some of the state’s $6.2 billion in American Rescue Plan funding to replenish the state’s Unemployment Trust Fund, he said. Instead, an increase in the unemployment tax on businesses will hit next month.

“I’m not closing the door on anything,” Murphy said. “I want to get the biggest bang for the buck.”

More than 70,000 businesses in the state have received some type of COVID aid so far, Murphy said.

The New Jersey Business and Industry Association and many lawmakers have opposed the unemployment tax increase on employers, saying it is another badly timed hit to job creators as they try to recover from pandemic losses.

State Sen. Michael Testa, R-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, has been calling on the governor to prevent the tax increase from taking effect by using federal funds to replenish the trust fund.

“Michael and I have talked, and they are all fair points,” Murphy said of Testa’s arguments for using ARP funds.

Murphy was in South Jersey for campaign appearances. He was due to stop in Galloway Township and Monmouth County later in the day, he said.

The Legislature has “signed bipartisan legislation that has already smoothed out” the tax increase, Murphy said. The legislation phases in the increase of almost $940 million over three years.

Every Republican in the state Legislature has signed a petition to convene a special legislative session to prevent an upcoming payroll tax increase on employers, repay debt and restore stability to the state’s Unemployment Insurance Fund, Testa said Monday.

But no Democrat has signed it.

“It’s extremely disappointing,” said Testa, a member of the Senate Budget & Appropriations Committee.

He called it a missed opportunity to work in a bipartisan manner, and said only seven Democrats were needed in the Senate and 13 in the Assembly to provide the majority needed to force Murphy to call a special session.

The unemployment fund’s deficit has more than tripled over the past month to $235 million, Testa said, with borrowed federal funds accruing interest as of Sept. 6.

Other states, including Nevada and Ohio, repaid their federal unemployment loans in full by Sept. 6 using money they received through ARP to avoid unnecessary interest charges, Testa said.

Swapz AC has been at The Walk for more than two years, Wilson said, and in the city for six years.

“Marty, this is like heaven,” Murphy said after examining some of the stock. “I don’t collect (sneakers), but one of my sons used to. Not as much these days, but he’ll be down here in a fast minute if he sees pictures.”

Store workers Ja’Heem Frederick and Chris Lopez, both 18 and recent Atlantic City High School graduates, talked to Murphy about basketball — Murphy only played for fun, not competitively.

“I probably should have taken more advantage of my height,” said the governor, who is more than 6 feet tall.

Small, a standout basketball player at Atlantic City High School and Stockton University, is a sneaker collector, he said.

“I’m a Jordan guy,” Small said of the Nike sneaker. Retro Jordans are his favorites, he said, which are recreations of “the ones he actually played in.”

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With Jewish high holy days underway, South Jersey rabbis see a time for reflection, inclusiveness and hope

When Stockton University held its first day of classes during the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana, students were upset but happy they didn’t have to choose between missing their first day of classes and missing the holiday.

Thanks to events planned by the Chabad of Stockton University & Galloway, they could have both.

“The students were so appreciative to be able to celebrate the holiday and also not miss out on the first day of classes,” said Rabbi Meir Rapoport, co-director of the Chabad at Stockton. “They refer to us as their home away from home.”

Atlantic City has had an established, at times conflicting relationship with American Jews, who began settling and visiting the resort in the late 19th century during its general rise in popularity as a summer resort. In the early 20th century, however, anti-Semitism led to a backlash and policies excluding Jews from many of the Boardwalk’s hotels. The move led the local Jewish community to develop its own hotels and businesses catering to Jews.

“So ‘side avenue’ hotels came to be, and that’s where Jews felt comfortable because they were accepted,” said Jerry Gordon, historian and author of “From Its Beginnings: The Jewish Community of the Atlantic City Area.”

Side avenue hotels offered kosher meals and even had cantors performing services for their guests.

Attitudes as well as businesses adapted. The Breakers Hotel, formerly at 4100 Boardwalk, was advertising Rosh Hashana services in 1944, catering to its mainly Jewish clientele.

“There was a lot of Jewish culture here besides religious life,” Gordon said.

That Jewish culture is evident in courses now taught at Stockton and in traditions celebrated during the Jewish high holy days, which began this year at sundown Sept. 6 with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. The holy days conclude with Yom Kippur, a day of atonement, beginning at sundown Wednesday and ending sundown Thursday. The day of atonement is considered the most sacred day of the year in the Jewish faith.

Marcia Fiedler, director of the Jewish Studies program at Stockton, teaches courses such as Women in the Bible and other subjects about Judaism. However, her classroom reflects a multifaith society and is a space where students can speak openly with each other about their beliefs.

“Ninety-five percent of the students who take the classes are not Jewish,” she said. “It’s been a wonderful experience for Muslim students, Christian students, students of no faith at all to get together and talk about similarities and differences. We’ve learned that no way is no better than the other.”

Last week, for Rosh Hashana, Chabad at Stockton held the ritual of the blowing of the shofar, a ram’s horn linked to the biblical story of the binding of Isaac.

Then the students partook in another tradition, the Tashlich. A prayer is sung while participants throw bread crumbs into a moving body of water such as a lake or ocean. The Stockton students performed the ritual at Lake Fred in Galloway Township.

“It represents throwing away all of your sins,” Fiedler said.

On Sunday, a “reverse” Tashlich event was held on the Huntington Avenue beach in Margate. Instead of throwing bread into the ocean, families and volunteers gathered to clean up the beach and pick up litter.

In addition to tradition and rituals, the Jewish high holidays are filled with symbols, especially when it comes to food.

A dish consisting of apples and honey is traditionally eaten on Rosh Hashana to signify a sweet beginning to the new year. Challah bread is also made into a round shape to represent the cycle of a year.

“We don’t want an ending to this goodness of the year — we want it to be a circle. Circle of life, you know, kind of Elton John-ish,” said Rabbi Shalom Ever from the Orthodox congregation Rodef Sholom in Atlantic City. “As a spiritual leader, Atlantic City is a very unusual town.”

According to Ever, 50% of his congregants are visitors, tourists and second-home owners. With new faces coming in all the time, Rodef Sholom ensures a warm welcome to all who attend services.

Atlantic City used to have a thriving Jewish population with four synagogues in the city, but as demographics changed, congregations moved to follow populations. Rodef Sholom is the only remaining synagogue in the city. However, Atlantic City’s reputation as a resort and place of worship for visitors has remained the same.

“The schul has an atmosphere in Atlantic City of a place, as a safe haven to pray, to schmooze, to hobnob,” said Ever. “And it goes on all year round, every day.”

According to Rapoport, Chabad at Stockton is welcoming and inclusive to Jews from all backgrounds.

“People join us from all different denominations. It is known as the synagogue of all affiliations and no affiliations.”

The period between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is a time for inner reflection.

“The idea of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is the time for reset,” said Rapoport. “We could all use a hard reset,” he said, adding, “and no more COVID and no more pandemic.”

Chabad at Stockton will hold a pre-Yom Kippur dinner Wednesday.

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Judge rules against property registration ordinances

A 4-year-old vacant home registry program that generated more than $2.6 million in revenue for local municipalities and a county agency has been struck down by an Atlantic County judge.

Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez ruled in favor of the lawsuit filed by McCormick 106 LLC, a Maryland company that buys and holds mortgages on New Jersey properties.

The company had sued the townships and the third-party firm, Florida-based Community Champions Corp., also known as Pro Champs, in 2019 over the validity and constitutionality of abandoned property registration ordinances adopted in 2017.

Egg Harbor Township, Hamilton Township, Galloway Township and the Atlantic County Improvement Authority signed on to the registry as they looked to track the thousands of vacant and abandoned homes, commonly known as zombie homes, that had overwhelmed the region as a result of the 2008 mortgage crisis and 2014 casino closings.

Hamilton Township Mayor Charles Cain and township Administrator Peter Miller declined to comment due to the possibility of filing an appeal of the verdict.

Miller, who was previously the Egg Harbor Township administrator, noted during the foreclosure crisis that municipalities were having trouble tracking down property owners of the more than 200 foreclosures a month in the township with which they were dealing. Atlantic County led the nation in foreclosures for a time.

In his ruling dated Aug. 16, Mendez stated the townships had a legitimate interest in passing regulations seeking to address vacant and abandoned properties.

Mendez found, however, that the ordinances in question too broadly define what a vacant and abandoned home is, “which allows municipalities to collect fees from properties that were never abandoned, never blighted, and never vacant.”

“The Court has great concern that this ultra-broad definition of vacant and abandoned homes, which is triggered by a mere default, is targeting financially vulnerable homeowners, is driven toward increasing municipal revenue, and is not reasonably addressing issues concerning (vacant and abandoned properties),” according to the ruling.

Mendez also said the fee structure imposed by the townships was arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable in that there was no connection between the fees imposed and any regulatory services provided.

“Setting registration fees from $300-$1,000 per year, and the fines from $500-$1,500 a day, without providing a scintilla of evidence as to how these numbers were computed and determined, is the definition of arbitrary and capricious,” the judge wrote. “It’s only that, a revenue scheme, which the Court can find no practical connection to the actual regulation of VAPs, which was the purpose for enacting the ordinances.”

His ruling stipulated that any fees or fines could not be placed as liens on the property.

At the time the lawsuit was filed in November 2019, Pro Champs collected more than $1.6 million in fine revenue for the Improvement Authority, more than $682,000 for Hamilton, $430,000 for Egg Harbor Township and more than $270,000 for Galloway.

Charlie Pritchard contributed to this report.