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Labor Day and the Myth of Playing by the Rules in NJ

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Productivity is up, but wages are down.

Corporate profits and retained earnings are up, but family income is down.

Your neighbors who "play by the rules" -- those who work full-time to support their families and give their kids a better chance than they had -- are sliding backwards on this Labor Day.

The just-issued report by the United Way of Northern New Jersey introduces the state to "ALICE," which stands for Assets Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. These are households where workers work, but their families struggle to survive. The report demonstrates that the Great Recession ravaged working families across the state by every demographic category -- old, young, white, black, male, female. By 2010, more than one-third of New Jersey's families did not earn enough to save for the future.

The county-by-county study of what it takes to meet essential costs for housing, childcare, transportation, health care and food finds that ALICE is everywhere. In Cumberland County, almost half of all households (47 percent) are either living at the federal poverty level (15 percent) or are ALICE families (32 percent); in wealthy Morris County, the ALICE-poverty incidence is nearly one in four. In short, there is no escaping the conclusion that New Jersey's middle class is under great duress and full-time workers are not holding on.

The implications for public policy in New Jersey are great.

Over 1.1 million households don't earn enough ($20/hour) to support a family at the survival budget level. Opponents of common-sense policies to change this fact -- like increasing the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour or restoring fully and immediately the state's share of the Earned Income Tax Credit -- ignore the magnitude of the state's growing battle for survival. And this is no problem that is limited to Camden, Trenton, or Newark or other places commonly associated with the word "poverty" or "disadvantage."

ALICE is introduced. May she change the nature and urgency of the public discussion.