In a resounding call for economic justice and accountability, residents of Camden, New Jersey, led by the passionate activists of the Camden We Choose Coalition, are demanding that local businesses prioritize the hiring of their fellow residents and disclose crucial employment information.
“The reason for the job ordinance is simple: we, the residents of Camden, deserve good-paying jobs with fair wages. We deserve the opportunity to live and work in the same city, and we want our hard-earned money to contribute to economic development. According to Ronsha Dickerson, an activist and co-chair of the Camden We Choose Coalition, ‘If you are incentivized to start a business, your first priority should be Camden residents!’ Dickerson’s passionate words ignited a crowd of demonstrators.
Dickerson’s coalition, the result of a partnership between local non-profits, organizations, and other entities, aims to empower Camden residents. It formed following Governor Murphy’s establishment of the Task Force on the Economic Development Authority’s Tax Incentives in 2019. The state comptroller’s audit had highlighted the lack of accountability in corporation tax benefits.
Since the Task Force’s creation, the EDA has been compelled to modify its supervision procedures. In January 2022, the Courier-Post reported that the EDA had reduced tax incentives by over $350 million.
The coalition holds the local government accountable for policies that fail to create meaningful and long-lasting investments for city residents in terms of employment access and fair wages. To raise awareness and push for change, the coalition organized a press conference at Roosevelt Park on Thursday, April 20th, located across from city hall.
This rally came shortly after the release of the ‘Semiannual Employee Residency Report.’ Initially scheduled for release on February 1, 2023, the report was delayed until March due to many businesses’ failure to provide workforce data by the deadline. The coalition made this report, the first of its kind in the city’s history, possible.
One of the coalition’s initial steps towards achieving local job equity was to gather community support through signatures to pass Ordinance MC-5404 during the summer of 2022. This ordinance requires businesses with 25 or more employees to disclose information such as the number of workers residing in Camden, their salaries, hours worked, and other employment details, as part of a city-wide biannual report.
Ronsha Dickerson expressed her thoughts on the reports, saying, ‘Our initial thoughts were that we were not surprised. But it is devastating to see when you look at the numbers, the way they’re coming in through the reports.’ According to the report, at a majority of the companies, less than 20% of employees are Camden residents.
While some outliers like Block By Block Inc., with 37 out of 45 employees being Camden residents, exist, larger companies such as Adventure Aquarium and CAMcare Health Corporation have a significantly lower percentage of Camden residents in their workforce.
Ayinde Merril, president of the nonprofit organization Watu Moja, one of several organizations in the coalition, stated, ‘I think that the city already knew that residents weren’t getting employed at the corporations, and I think there have been attempts to get employment numbers from them in the past, but they always refused to provide them. So, we always believed that the numbers were pretty damning.’
Frustrated by these initial reports, Merril also emphasized the need to utilize the data to drive positive change, saying, ‘Now we have the data to back us up, and what we do and what the city does with the data is the next big step. That’s what the hard work is now – what do we do with the data?’
The disparity between tax incentives and the hiring of actual residents has garnered criticism from individuals who question the public policy choices. The U.S. Census Bureau’s data from 2020 revealed that Camden’s poverty rate stood at 33.6% with a median household income of $28,623, despite significant business tax advantages. In contrast, the median income for American households was $67,521.
“The state of New Jersey provided waterfront companies with over a billion dollars in tax incentives under the pretense of assisting Camden and promoting its growth,” said Sue Altman, director of NJ Working Families.
According to reports, major businesses in Camden such as Holtec International, Subaru, and the Philadelphia 76ers have less than 5% of their workforce comprised of Camden residents.
Campbells Soup reported that 7% of their employees are residents of Camden. In a statement to BlackInNJ.com, Campbell expressed their commitment to transparency and compliance with Camden’s new Employee Residency Reporting ordinance. They mentioned having seven employees residing in Camden, along with 66 Camden residents working at their headquarters through established relationships with contractors and suppliers. Campbell emphasized their longstanding presence in Camden and their dedication to collaborating with city leaders for resident support and economic development.
Altman criticized the state’s decision to grant significant tax breaks to these companies, questioning the lack of job opportunities and the low wages for those who do secure employment. She raised concerns about the flawed public policy that led to these tax breaks and the problematic process involved.
Sean Brown, a policy analyst, viewed the data as a means to benefit both residents and corporations, highlighting the importance of education, apprenticeships, union jobs, and initiatives like job fairs to enhance the employment ecosystem in the community.
Elijah Carr, a Camden resident, also emphasized the need for improved education and resources to create job opportunities. Carr stressed the significance of investing in education and training to enable residents to secure well-paying positions, ultimately leading to an educated local workforce.
Despite uncertainty, Carr expressed hope for positive development in the city that prioritizes its residents.
The next report is scheduled for August 1st, 2023, and will be accessible as public information upon filing with the City Clerk. In the meantime, the data has allowed the Coalition to mobilize the community once again in advocating for job equity based on this newfound information.
During the week of April 17th, the Coalition organized various events aimed at improving living conditions and opportunities for all residents. These events included a virtual class addressing Black maternal health for expecting Black mothers on Monday, April 17th, and a ‘Camden Quality of Life Town Hall’ held at Rutgers University Nursing and Science Building in downtown Camden on Tuesday, April 18th.
The town hall meeting brought together elected officials, concerned citizens, volunteers, coalition members, and Rutgers students. Attendees participated in interactive discussions, forming groups focused on different aspects of quality of life, such as education, health, economics/jobs, community safety, youth development, and healthcare. These groups drew upon their expertise and knowledge to propose approaches for long-term prosperity in each area.
Ray Jones, a Camden resident and owner of We See You LLC, attended the town hall and actively contributed to the economic and job creation discussions. Jones highlighted his commitment to providing employment opportunities for people in his community, with a workforce consisting mainly of Camden residents.
Paul, a Camden Rutgers student, expressed shock at the low representation of Camden residents in large businesses and found it appalling. Paul also participated in the economic discussions during the town hall.
At the conclusion of the exercise, attendees reconvened to share their findings. The Coalition urged individuals to volunteer and use the compiled list as a policy guide to advocate for improved quality of life aligned with community values. Handouts containing information about corporations receiving tax incentives and their workforce demographics were distributed, accompanied by infographics for better understanding. These handouts were also accompanied by a flier for an upcoming rally.
The pass-outs highlighted companies like NFI, Conner Strong & Buckelew, and American Water, which employ hundreds of people but have fewer than 10 residential employees. This data aimed to draw attention to the lack of local representation within these corporations.
Keith Benson Jr., president of the Camden Education Association, participated in the rally on April 20th, emphasizing the need for corporations to change their hiring practices and provide better opportunities.
Lauren Holguin, a graduate worker at Rutgers University and former K-12 teacher in Camden, rallied for corporate accountability and job security, highlighting the importance of supporting the community and its residents.
Susan Kikuchi, also a graduate worker at Rutgers Camden, echoed Holguin’s sentiments, emphasizing the impact of economic injustice and divestment on the community. Kikuchi, along with Holguin, was among the members of the AAUP-AFT who attended the rally, an organization dedicated to safeguarding quality public higher education.
Areline Lewis, a crossing guard and resident of North Camden, expressed the need for change and voiced her support for the cause.
During the rally, Dickerson addressed the attendees, outlining the coalition’s demands for businesses and elected officials. She called for accountability, timely reporting, and prioritizing the hiring of Camden residents. She also advocated for the establishment of job training pipelines in partnership with high schools and ongoing job fairs to monitor immediate hiring outcomes. Dickerson concluded by emphasizing the importance of providing residents with meaningful and secure jobs that foster upward mobility and allow them to support their families.
Fueled by the determination for substantial change, the Camden We Choose coalition remains dedicated to securing a future that prioritizes residents and holds corporations and elected officials accountable.
This story was produced as part of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University’s South Jersey Information Equity Project fellowship and supported with funding from the Independence Public Media Foundation.