In one month in 2009 the number of people seeking help at the Morris County Office of Temporary Assistance hit 4,000. That was pretty much a record.
The Board of Freeholders were properly impressed and concerned.
The families were offered help with jobs, sometimes housing, but most often, with food. Local soup kitchens and food panties were swamped and officials scrambled to find goods to meet the rising need.
This was Morris County, one of the top 10 richest counties in the United States year after year; Morris County with its corporate job base, nice towns, good schools, progressive governments, a place with a jobless rate that rarely topped 4 percent, even in the worst of times.
The worry that crossed the freeholders’ brows that month became expressions of shock when in the next month they were told the number of people in line at the unemployment office had topped 5,000, an increase of 1,000 in a single month.
The ground had shifted.
And it is still shifting.
That’s why the Leadership Morris annual “Picnic with a Purpose” on June 18 is important. It was important in 2009 and 2010, and maybe more so in 2013 because aren’t things supposed to be better now?
What is important to note that in 2009 and 2010, it was not in part just the numbers of families whose lives had undergone a negative change, but who those families represented.
That was what got the freeholders’ attention: The new enrollees were not the usual suspects, but families from among the richest towns in the county.
They were not the grocery store part-timers or seasonal workers, but the banking families.
When the bankers show up at the unemployment office, something is decidedly off kilter.
We know now that it was: The Great Recession of 2007 to 2009 whose fiscal debris is still being cleaned up.
Morris County’s jobless rate doubled to 7.6 percent in 18 months, homes were in foreclosure, the Wall Street meltdown that first claimed investment bank Bear Sterns and then Lehman Brothers had landed in Morris County.
The bankers were the canaries in the mine.
What happened to the richest families in the county was happening in larger numbers to those of more modest means.
The ALICE report updated in 2012 by the United Way of Northern New Jersey shows that statewide there was a four-year increase in poverty rates and in the number of families who fall into the ALICE group of those households with incomes between $20,000 and $60,000.
Statewide, the number of households in poverty rose from 269,947 to 319,968; and the number of ALICE families rose from 750,619 to 829,001.
In 2010 in Morris County, 40,753 households were struggling. That’s 23 percent of all the homes in the county.
What has changed in 2013? The county’s jobless rate has dropped: It was 6.5 percent in April.
But the jobs are different, lower paying in general, the bubble of the great corporate office park job machine finally burst, leaving about 23 million square feet of vacant space aging under the green suburban trees, quiet behind the vale of lawn tractor noise kept active by owners seeking to project the image of success, of vibrancy, for the empty, dying spaces.
The result is that the need for assistance for families has deepened.
Carolyn Lake, director of community relations and development for the Interfaith Food Pantry, knows this too well.
“Unfortunately, there are still people losing jobs and having hours reduced every day and it is clear that the need will continue to expand,” she said.
In 2012, the Pantry served over 4,700 households and distributed over 741,000 pounds of food.
“In the first four months of 2013, we already have provided help to over 1,400 households and distributed nearly 280,000 pounds of food, which is an increase of about 28 percent over the same period last year,” Lake said.
To make a dent in the need, the Leadership Morris “Picnic With a Purpose” will be held at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, July 18 at Central Park of Morris County, located on Central Avenue, Morris Plains.
This year Leadership Morris is being supported by the Morris Tap & Grill of Randolph, and YouGiveGoods.com.
“We’ve been able to put together a terrific set of partners to help make this event a success. said Joseph Nazzaro, Executive Director of Leadership Morris. “We’ve been working closely with the Interfaith Food Pantry, the Morris County Chamber of Commerce, YouGiveGoods, and Morris Tap & Grill to make this year’s event even more successful than last year’s, where we collected and donated more than a ton of food to the pantry. “
This year’s picnic will feature a “Grillin & Swillin” demonstration with celebrity chef, Eric LeVine of Morris Tap & Grill, who will demonstrate his tips, tricks and secrets to making a backyard barbeque sizzle.
“When I saw the number of families visiting the food pantry, I knew that this was a cause I could support. I truly believe in paying it forward, and this a great opportunity for me to get involved”, LeVine said.
LeVine and Morris Tap & Grill, 500 Route 10 west, will host the Leadership Morris alumni social from 5 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 12.
Bringing an internet-based flavor to the event is yougivegoods.com, a company created to offer connections for those who have needs and those who want to help fill them. Fund-raisers, food drives and the like can be created, and through links on the website, those seeking to help can make donations.
Donors seeking to help the Leadership Morris food drive can purchase food on the website.
To purchase food online, visit the drive page at www.YouGiveGoods.com/2013PicnicWithAPurpose