More than 1.2 million households in New Jersey can't afford a bare minimum monthly budget of housing, child care, food, transportation, health care and a cell phone, according to 2016 data released Monday by United Way of Northern New Jersey.

In the years since the post-recession economic recovery began, the number of households struggling to afford the basics grew by 15 percent, the report said. While costs shot up 16 to 28 percent, median earnings increased by only 12 percent.

Overall, more than 38 percent of New Jersey households can't afford basic bills, according to the report.

But not all of these people are considered poor. Most — 28 percent — earn above the federal poverty line, but less than the basic cost of living. In the report, these households are known as ALICE — Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.

"ALICE is so important in our community and our economy," said Stephanie Hoopes, director of the United Way ALICE Project. "ALICE works in jobs that take care of our workforce, educate our workforce, build our infrastructure, repair our infrastructure."

In every county, the share of ALICE households outnumbered those considered to be in poverty.

Health care was found to be the biggest driver of cost increases for families since the end of the recession. Households of those aged under 25 posted the highest ALICE/poverty percentage.

ALICE by county

In an e-mailed statement, Gov. Phil Murphy said United Way's ALICE report proves the need to grow the state's economy and "make it more fair."

Murphy said an increase in the state's minimum wage, on a path to $15 per hour, is a crucial step toward lifting residents above the ALICE threshold.

"We must make this a legislative priority and work to enact it before the end of the upcoming holidays," Murphy said. "Economic stability would be among the best holiday gifts we could possibly give our ALICE families. We can, and must, deliver."

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