New Jersey’s Hunterdon County, the hilly region of horse farms and weekend retreats where last year’s median household income was almost $100,000, is a surprising new face of federal food aid.
The percentage of U.S. households using food stamps has more than doubled in six of the 10 wealthiest counties in the nation as more residents find themselves out of work and unable to sell their homes. The increase among counties with more than 65,000 people was greatest in Hunterdon County, according to Census Bureau data compiled by Bloomberg.
Hunterdon, whose 2010 median household income of $97,874 was the highest in New Jersey and fourth-highest in the U.S, saw food-stamp usage surge 513 percent between 2007 and 2010, although the overall numbers are small.
“Sometimes people will come in a Mercedes,” said Gina Davio, 41, program director of social services at Fisherman’s Mark, a non-profit social-services center in Lambertville, a city of 3,900 on the Delaware River. “Sometimes they come in nothing but Ralph Lauren, but you never know: That may be all they have left.”
Nationwide, requests for emergency food assistance increased over the past year in 25 of 29 cities surveyed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Unemployment led the list of reasons for requesting the aid, followed by poverty, low-wage jobs and high housing costs, according to the survey released today. Eighty-eight percent of the cities reported an increase in the number of persons requesting food assistance for the first time.
In Hunterdon County, the number of households enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the $75 billion federal system still widely known as food stamps even after a title change in 2008, increased to 1,424 in 2010 from 232 in 2007.
Neighboring Somerset County, where the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis hunted foxes on horseback and the Far Hills steeplechase is a highlight of the social season, increased its caseload almost threefold, to 3,777, from 1,237. That county, a 45-minute drive from the Lincoln Tunnel to midtown Manhattan, has the eighth-highest household income, at $94,270. Morris County, 10th in the national income rank and home to Governor Chris Christie, more than doubled its food-stamp enrollment to 4,076 cases from 1,680.
Food-stamp usage also more than doubled in the Washington, D.C., suburbs of Loudoun and Fairfax counties in Virginia, the two wealthiest in the nation, as well as in that state’s Prince William County, the census data show.
Christie, at a news conference at the Food Bank of South Jersey in Pennsauken yesterday, said he hadn’t personally seen evidence of hunger in Morris County.
“In some of those affluent counties it’s hidden even more because it’s unexpected and because the people who are there try affirmatively to hide it,” he said. “But we know it’s there. We know it’s there by the statistics.”
Hunger in New Jersey’s wealthier areas is apparent at the Food Bank Network of Somerset County in Bridgewater, which is serving about 3,500 individuals this year, a 35 percent increase from 2010.
“So many people out there are coming from the hills -- Bernardsville and Basking Ridge, a lot of Bedminster people,” Marie Scannell, the bank’s executive director, said in a phone interview.
Forty-five percent who use the food bank also collect the federal benefits, compared with 30 percent last year, said Scannell, 70. In 2005, Somerset County counted 538 foreclosures, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts. Last year, the figure was 1,580.
In June, the Somerset Hills Republican Club appealed to donors to fill orange “Curbing Hunger” bags, distributed by the county months earlier, and drop them at the Bernardsville rail station.
“Some may be wealthy, but like everywhere we have our share of people in need,” said Barbara Long, 72, the club’s president.
Lambertville, about 15 miles north of the state capital of Trenton, has a mix of middle-class families, New Yorkers who maintain weekend homes, third- and fourth-generation residents and Hispanic immigrants. In October, demand at Fisherman’s Mark, four blocks from downtown art galleries and antique shops, was up 23 percent compared with a year earlier, said Davio. Nine percent of the October clients were there for the first time.
“We see a lot of families who used to make a lot of money and are in a transition mode -- whether it’s due to a divorce, loss of a job or medical bills -- that don’t have the ability to put the reins on the way they were living,” Davio said.
In Trenton, one of the cities surveyed by the mayors group, the Mercer Street Friends Food Bank started a SNAP outreach program last year to increase participation in the food-stamp program.
Mercer County, which includes Trenton, saw food-stamp usage more than double between 2007 and 2010, the Census data show.
Kenneth Schapiro, a Hunterdon County resident who is founder and president of investment adviser Condor Capital in Martinsville, part of Somerset County, said he’s not surprised by the rise in food-stamp use. Housing is 30 percent to 40 percent off its peak in the area, he said in an e-mail.
“I run a few businesses in the area and have seen some collection issues, where in the past we have seen none,” Schapiro wrote.
Leaving Property Alone
In New Jersey, whose 2010 median household income of $67,681 was second-highest in the nation behind Maryland, a family of four qualifies if its gross monthly income is less than $3,447. While applicants can be denied if they have certain liquid assets, their property and cars haven’t been taken into account since April 2010, when the income threshold was increased, according to Nicole Brossoie, assistant commissioner of public affairs for human services.
“Home, car, etc. are not easily liquidated to support families’ immediate food needs,” Brossoie said in an e-mail.
New Jersey’s economy was ranked the third-worst performing among U.S. states in the year through June 30, according to the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States Index, which uses data on employment, income, real estate, taxes and stocks. The unemployment rate was 9.1 percent in October, while the national rate was 9.0 percent that month.
The economic data this year led human services to start a public-education campaign telling New Jerseyans they may qualify for the federal food benefits and other programs.
‘A Different Time’
The rising New Jersey figures may reflect “a situation where there are more needy people in the community and hopefully the state is doing a better job of helping them,” said Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which researches issues affecting people of low and moderate incomes.
Hunterdon County had the lowest unemployment rate in the state last year, 7 percent, according to data from the state labor department. That rate, though, is more than double the 2.9 percent unemployment it had in 2007.
George Melick, a Republican member of the county’s governing body whose family has farmed in the region since the 18th century, said the rise in food benefits is just one facet of what he called “a different time here in Hunterdon.”
“We have a lot of big houses that are not sale-able,” he said. “The economy here is worse than some people would let on.”