Status of Women in Bergen County Report

So much of what has been shared by our 2020 grantees underscores the impact of the pandemic – but it does not tell the whole story.  The last twenty months have been a time of profound social reckoning.  No one has been spared the effects but the lives of so many in our community who live on the margins have been turned upside down.  We are grateful to our grantees who adapted to combat the shockwaves caused by the pandemic.  However, in addition to the experiences they share, the impact of issues such as the impending lift of the eviction moratorium, the spate of domestic violence murders, the rise in human trafficking, the resettlement of Afghan refugees, and the retrenchment of 50 years of reproductive rights, are also of significance to our work as educated philanthropists.

Women in New Jersey have made considerable advances in recent years.  According to the Status of Women in States, the gender wage gap is narrowed, a higher percentage of women have bachelor’s degrees, and a growing number of employed women in New Jersey are in managerial, professional occupations or are business owners.  About 45% of women hold executive positions and 32% of businesses are owned by women.  However, with the losses experienced by women forced to leave the workforce during the pandemic, it will be 2054 before women see those advances achieve equity.

New Jersey ranks third for the share of women living above poverty. That’s the good news. Still, beginning at age 5 the poverty rate is higher among women than men over the course of their lifetime.  For women over 75, 13% live in poverty as compared to 9% of men the same age.  Bergen County’s poverty rate (7.2%/ranked 6th in NJ) is one and one half times higher for those who were born citizens of a country other than the U.S. (NJ Department of Labor and Workforce Development/Welfare Information).  Bergen County has the third highest number of immigrants in the state (31,169) according to

If employed women in New Jersey were paid the same as comparable men, their poverty rate would be reduced by more than half.  Women of color make up more than half (52%) of those living below the poverty level.  33% are single mothers with children.  And, it is important to note that the poverty line leaves out geographical differences in the cost of living.  Based on a national average cost of living score of 100, NJ scores at 120.4 and Bergen County at 143.3.  As reported in The Record, inflation is also now at the highest rate in 13 years.   For example, food prices are one the rise, 4.6% higher than a year ago and 1 in 3 households are energy insecure.  As a result, three times as many households in our community will struggle to pay for basic necessities such as food, housing, home heating (projected to rise as much as 50%) and health care – as those officially classified as “in poverty.”  This winter many families will likely face an unconscionable choice – heat or eat.

Lifting the Eviction Moratorium

NJ could soon face an historic housing crisis.  According to a report on November 11, 2021, 60,000 evictions are pending court action across the state; 3,300 are pending in Bergen County.  Almost one third of renters failed to pay their rent fully and on time between March 2020 and April 2021.  While the Governor’s Executive Order 106 imposed an eviction moratorium at the height of the pandemic, it did not stop eviction cases from proceeding; it stopped only the final act of physically removing the person from their home.  Still, this is one area where some protections have been put into place.  Subsequent to EO 106, PL 2021 c 188 was signed into law in April.  It winds down the eviction moratorium beginning on August 31, 2021 while providing protection to renters with the distribution of $1.2 billion in COVID-19 emergency rental assistance.  Unfortunately, slow implementation (Bergen County has distributed only 7% of the state aid – the lowest of any county in the state), barriers to access and confusing eligibility criteria will likely lead to more renters becoming homeless or housing insecure.  Most landlords are represented by counsel while the vast majority of tenants who face eviction have neither counsel nor anyone to help them navigate the complex system of support.

There are serious consequences. Links between evictions and diminished health outcomes for parents and children, reduced earnings and job instability for parents, and negative effects on children’s education attainment are well established.

Abuse on the Rise

In a series of news articles published in the NY Times and The Record between October 6 and November 7, 2021, there has been a spike in violence underscored by four appalling murders in Bergen County in just one month – two of which were cases of domestic abuse – an Elmwood Park man allegedly killed by his ax-wielding grandson and a Washington Township woman allegedly stabbed to death by her live-in boyfriend.

Requests for domestic violence services have increased with hotline calls up 46% and they have not waned.   Already this year, more than 6,150 calls have been answered and more than 1,190 adults and children have been helped to find safety from their abuser. The shelter has remained well beyond its capacity of 40 for most of the year – reaching a high of 70 women and children housed and another 35 women and children in five transitional homes.

The danger of loss of life is usually highest when abusers know that victims are preparing to move out of the house.  Bergen County’s Prosecutor recently reported that since the beginning of 2021, his office has taken on 838 new cases – 332 of which were restraining order violations.

Human Trafficking

Victims of human trafficking are exploited for the purpose of commercial sexual activity, including prostitution and pornography, as well as many types of forced labor, including domestic servitude. Traffickers lure and control their victims through the use of force, fraud, or coercion, and employ techniques such as physical and psychological abuse, false employment offers, document holding, and isolation.  This form of modern day slavery exists in Bergen County.  In February of this year, the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office took down an international human trafficking ring that had been victimizing more than 50 people – mostly young Mexican women between the ages of 18 and 30 for more than 6 years.  They were lured with the possibility of coming to the United States and getting jobs, only to be forced into sexual slavery.  The women were paid to service as many as 40 clients a day for 12 hours at a time, keeping only 50 percent of the money they made. Much of that money ended up back in the hands of the ring-leaders to pay back alleged debt for bringing the victims to the United States.  The sustained trauma of human trafficking often leaves victims skeptical of their newfound safety, taking a long time to trust anyone.

Refugee Resettlement

As the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan continues, New Jersey has taken a central role in resettling refugees coming to the United States according to NY Times reporting on September 25, 2021. 64,000 Afghan refugees are in the U.S. with another 30,000 expected over the next 12 months. 8,500 are currently in NJ.  The number is expected to reach 13,000. The exact number of individuals and families in Bergen County has not been reported.

However, it seems very likely that the number of Afghan immigrants arriving the United States in the coming years is going to be significant, assuming no change in U.S. immigration policy. With the takeover by the Taliban of that country, many are likely to want to leave. Given the oppressive nature of the new Taliban regime, the Biden administration will also be under political pressure to admit more Afghans on humanitarian grounds as refugees, asylees, and on Special Immigrant Visas.

Reproductive Freedom

Reproductive freedom is under attack in many states and 2021 has clearly become the defining year for abortion rights.  Abortion is legal in NJ, there are few to no restrictions and abortion is accessible.  However, the Reproductive Freedom Act has been introduced in the NJ legislature by former WUIP member, Assemblywoman Valerie Huttle to ensure that barriers to access to reproductive health are removed and that access to contraception is expanded while reaffirming choice. New Jersey has the opportunity to stand firm in the values of freedom and equity but women have to stay vigilant in the fight to keep every single right earned – even the rights and protections that have been upheld for decades. The Reproductive Freedom Act ensures that everyone — including people of color, people in low income communities, immigrants, the uninsured and other marginalized groups — can make their own personal medical decisions with dignity.  However, the Act has not yet passed the legislature.


There is no doubt that this has been a period of economic hardship and service disruptions.  As the data reported clearly substantiates, it has resulted in widespread financial instability, job loss, housing insecurity, and debt accrual for thousands of low and moderate – income individuals and families in our community.  But poverty among women is not inevitable.  To lift women out of poverty, solutions must address the myriad of ways that women are uniquely burdened, their wages depressed and opportunities limited.  This includes improving vital assistance programs, addressing workplace disparities, ensuring work-family benefits, and expanding access to life-saving supports.  The vital role of Women United in Philanthropy could not be more clear.

Respectfully submitted,

Gina Plotino

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