Facing N.J.'s top issue: The economy

The greatest concern among voters in the most significant congressional elections in South Jersey is the ongoing economic crisis.

Even before the shock waves on Wall Street, voters in poll after poll said their paychecks were not going as far as they once did. They blamed the rising cost of essentials such as food and health care, and a loss of value in their homes and other investments. They worried about losing their jobs and finding new ones.

As Congress mulls a bailout of the financial industry, voters are wondering: Where's their bailout?

"Everything we do has changed," said Gwen Herzalla, 44, of Cherry Hill. She works as a restaurant manager and took a second job waitressing to bring in extra income for her family. But it's not enough.

"People aren't going out to eat anymore. Business is cut in half. The restaurant business has died," she said. So she's going back to school in January to study pharmacy.

Charles Hood, of Gloucester Township, said he's cut back on going out to dinner, but he still has a job that pays well.

So, he's helping his children who are coping with young families in a down-sliding economy. That gasoline credit card he had just for emergencies had no balance on it until recent months. He lends it to his three children.

"It has a balance now," he said. "They have to go to work, too."

Candidates in the Senate and congressional races say they have plans to ease voters' pain.

Former U.S. Rep. Richard Zimmer, the GOP Senate candidate, said any bailout financed by American taxpayers must have protections to prevent near collapse again.

"People have been greedy throughout history. The function of government is to make sure greed doesn't affect everybody else," he said. "Now, it looks like we as taxpayers are going to buy the worst mortgages from people who made private decisions. We've got to do everything we can to make sure this monumental bailout at inestimable costs is the very last one that we see."

He would clean up the practice of letting people buy homes who couldn't afford to pay for them and would make sure that "those who originate the loan can't just sell the mortgage and be done with it and pocket the fees. They have to have some skin in the game to make them act like a real bank."

Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg's staff did not make him available for an interview for this story. But in a statement, he noted he supported a law to "help 400,000 American homeowners refinance into mortgages they can better afford."

People in New Jersey are especially troubled because they spend more on housing than most Americans. They devote 52 percent of their incomes to housing, which includes mortgages, utilities, taxes and other costs.

Making matters worse, they followed the rest of the country for the last three years and stopped saving for a rainy day or a collapsing credit market, said James W. Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.

"People have been essentially spending all they earn and have actually been spending more. They kept refinancing the house, using the house as an ATM machine," he said, creating an "unsustainable consumption binge."

To shore up home values, the largest investment most people make, State Sen. John Adler (D., Camden) a candidate in the Third District congressional race, said, "We have to stimulate new homeownership." He wants to expand on tax credits for first-time home buyers and home improvements.

To protect people's homes, his Republican opponent Medford Mayor Chris Myers said, "In the short term, we have to bail folks out and get the mortgage companies bailed out because we have no other choice."

He added, "We have to rein in the crazy mortgage speculation that goes back to a regulatory approach where nobody's looking at the big picture."

Part of the bigger picture of the economy is jobs and even a company holding its own is feeling the pinch.

Anthony L. Mongeluzo, president of ProComputer Service in Medford, said in a recent interview that until a year ago, he was hiring three to five new employees a year. Within the last 18 months, he's hired only two - and they replaced workers who left. At the same time, he says his workforce has become more efficient.

"Even still, if the economy was better we would have grown by a couple of more people at least," he said.

New Jersey, which had seen job growth in recent years, is now losing jobs, Rutgers' Hughes said.

The big expansions of the last decade saw an average of 74,000 new private-sector jobs a year between 1992 and 2000. Growth slowed this decade to about 23,000 jobs, but in 2007 New Jersey flatlined, adding only 3,700. And, in the first seven months of this year, the state lost 14,500 jobs.

Lautenberg is calling for infrastructure improvements such as road and bridge work to stimulate job growth.

Zimmer says the government should reduce some corporate taxes and encourage the private sector to invest in research and development.

"That I think will create the technologies of the future, and that is a far better investment in the long run than trying to prop up specific industries," he said.

 


Contact staff writer Cynthia Burton at 856-779-3858 or cburton@phillynews.com.