A state Supreme Court ruling in March took affordable housing funding out of the hands of the Christie administration.
(Mitsu Yasukawa/The Star-Ledger)
By Christian Estevez
New Jersey is one of the most diverse states in our country. It has, however, not fully realized the strength of its diversity. It remains, after several decades of legal battles and public discourse, one of the most segregated states in the nation. It has sluggishly moved forward towards desegregating itself, and has often met roadblocks that continue—to this very day—decades of relative disadvantage for minority children in impoverished regions.
According to an April 20 Star-Ledger article on poverty and children in New Jersey, "one-third of black children and 29 percent of Latino children and 20 percent of children of mixed race lived below the poverty line in 2013." As a state with such rich financial and educational wealth, we should not allow our children to grow up in two different New Jerseys—one for those with opportunity and another for those without it. Our country's national discussion on income inequality has awakened our desire to discuss the often-ignored plight of our working-class brothers and sisters. It should be as critical to also engage our communities in discussing the perils of geographically-based segregation on children and families.
In March, our state Supreme Court took issue with the manner in which Gov. Chris Christie refused to comply with our fair housing laws. After years of an inactive, sluggish approach at enforcing fair housing requirements, as mandated by our state constitution and state Fair Housing Act, a unanimous court ruled that municipalities must act, by this July, to move forward on creating housing units for our state's poorest families. The decision takes enforcement of fair housing laws out of the hands of Gov. Christie, who has consistently blocked that enforcement, and allows towns to fulfill their requirements accordingly. This ruling should be heralded as a win for all of our children. A town with economic and social diversity can serve as a model for what our state, and ultimately our nation, can achieve when it works together to end discriminatory practices in the most cherished part of our lives: our home.
A report released by Harvard researchers in April, and featured recently in the New York Times, concluded that living in more integrated communities has a dramatic effect on families. University researchers studied data collected over more than a decade and determined that the younger a child moves into a community of opportunity, the more his or her earnings will increase when they reach working-age adulthood.
The study looked at the nation's largest 100 counties and found that the younger a child when he or she moves to a new community, the more likely they are to earn more than those who remain in an impoverished region. One telling example looks at male children born in Baltimore, one of the nation's highest poverty cities, who remained within the city well into adulthood. Data reveals that these male adults earned 25 percent less than other boys, also born in Baltimore, who moved to a region with more social and economic opportunities. Overall, research revealed that, nation-wide, children who remained in impoverished cities through adulthood would go on to make, on average, 35 percent less than their low-income counterparts who grow up in more economically advantaged communities. The same Harvard study also revealed that two of the ten highest opportunity communities in the country are Bergen and Middlesex counties.
These statistics reveal a critical issue that New Jersey must adequately face. As a state, we must not only strive to achieve economic opportunities for families living in urban, low-income regions, but we must also work to desegregate all communities. If we are to work towards more stable jobs, and better opportunities for children across New Jersey, regardless of race or ethnicity, we must create equal opportunities in all of our municipalities, consistent with the true intent of the N.J. Supreme Court's Mount Laurel decisions and state Fair Housing Act. The recent court decision offers the hope of greater opportunity in New Jersey.
It is an opportunity we must seize now.
Christian Estevez is executive vice president of the Latino Action Network.