Poverty is still a very real problem in the Garden State, according to Assembly Speaker Vinnie Prieto.

Assembly Speaker Vinnie Prieto (Kevin McArdle, Townsquare Media NJ)

At a press conference in his office Wednesday morning, the speaker announced that he had scheduled four special committee hearings to look for ways to address the issue. The hearings were set for Wednesday, Jan. 27. Prieto said if Garden State residents could be lifted out of poverty, it could go a long way toward rebuilding the middle class.

"In 2014, there were 2.8 million New Jersey adults living in poverty; also, we have about 800,000 children that live in poverty," said Prieto (D-Secaucus). "When we think that this is a state with great wealth, and when we look at New Jersey and think about we're in 2016, it's basically embarrassing that we're here having to talk about poverty."

According to a recent report by Legal Services of New Jersey, more Garden State residents are in poverty now than in the past five decades. The report also listed county-by-county poverty statistics.

The four panels slated to meet Wednesday and the topics to be discussed included:

  • The Assembly Human Services Committee: will focus on existing and needed state and federal services to help people overcome poverty.
  • The Assembly Women and Children Committee: will focus on employment issues such as job training availability, pay equity and employment barriers and issues that impact children living in poverty.
  • The Assembly Transportation Committee: will focus on New Jersey’s transportation network and how it could be better used to help those in poverty.
  • The Assembly Housing and Economic Development Committee: will focus on the housing problems and needs of families living in poverty.

The speaker was asked if the pay equity discussion would include talk about increasing the state's minimum wage.

"I'm not saying that won’t come up," Prieto said. "We actually did something with the minimum wage, so it's something that's always going to be revisited. That probably may come up, but I want to focus on seeing services that we have, how well we're administering what we're getting, and how can we do a better job."

The concept behind the hearings is to take testimony from experts, stakeholders and the public, so that information can be gathered to guide lawmakers in finding ways to draft bills that would actually help people living in poverty. The top Republican in the Assembly supported the hearings, but also said more could be done to help the middle class.

"We should also address high property taxes to help the middle class," said Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield) in an emailed statement. "For too long, middle class homeowners have struggled living in this state. To get New Jersey's property taxes under control, we need to make this our top priority this session."

Kevin McArdle has covered the State House for New Jersey 101.5 news since 2002. Contact him at kevin.mcardle@townsquaremedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @kevinmcardle1.