After warning that there would be chirping children’s voices in the background on the phone, she felt the need to add that it was not a plant.
But they conveniently served the point New Jersey Economic Development Authority leader Tara Colton was saying: After more than 28 months of lockdowns, quarantines, remote working and distance learning, disentangling work life and childcare responsibilities is trickier than ever.
And that’s one of the reasons Colton, NJEDA’s executive vice president of economic security, said there’s been a reassessment of the kind of programs that can elevate the capacity of New Jersey and its residents to succeed in today’s economy.
“Without something like child care, our economy cannot function – let alone thrive,” she said. “We view it as part of our state’s economic development infrastructure.”
From childcare to healthy food options for Jersey residents, some of the initiatives touted as focusing on economic development in the Garden State look different.
Over the past year, NJEDA has taken center stage on a $54.5 million pilot program to improve child care facilities, as well as a $240 million funding program enabled by the Food Desert Relief Act to address food insecurity.
“I think the EDA leading the charge with the help of our sister agencies really reinforces how these types of efforts are investments in our economy, not charity,” Colton said. “These are strategic ideas to help all Jersey people meet their basic needs and get the dignity and opportunities they deserve.
“It really expands the scope of what it means to care about economic development to a more human-centric definition that brings a lot of weight and very real impact.”
And the latest economic trends could provide early validation of the two aforementioned programs that Colton and his agency are participating in this year.
For one thing, the agency’s funding pool for communities designated as food deserts — funds intended to fill gaps in places where there are few quality options for food or groceries — is being fine-tuned as inflation and rising food prices in particular push Jerseys higher into the paylines.
NJEDA and local food banks have previously reported that the pandemic has brought the number of food-insecure Jerseyans to a total of more than 1.2 million. Colton said that while the value of SNAPs, or food stamps, has increased in recent years, households are going through grocery budgets at a faster rate.
“Rising food and grocery prices and exacerbating supply chain issues have only exacerbated this problem,” she said.
Colton added that these are basic needs in Jerseyans’ own backyards – literally. Someone might not even notice that neighbors are struggling to make ends meet, she said, as many take the bus to a food bank so they don’t risk seeing someone queer. ‘they know.
As for the link with economic development, for her, it is obvious.
“It’s not a big leap to think about what it’s like to go to work hungry, because you’re sacrificing meals yourself so your child can eat, and how does that mean that the place that employs you doesn’t get the best employee,” she says. “And then you also have the costs. Hospital systems and private health insurers are increasingly investing in the social determinants of health. They all take strategic approaches to factors, like if you ate something today, that contribute to a person’s health and the prevention of costly diseases in our healthcare system.
At the same time, the economic development arm of the state links other basic needs to economic outcomes.
Child care centers are getting a boost from a newly approved program that provides grants in the range of $50,000 to $200,000 for repairs and improvements to these facilities.
“There is a lot of research on the positive impact child care can have in certain settings,” she said. “The same data exists with food security.”
The effort aims to provide safer environments for the children of working families. It also bolsters the revenue and economic power of child care providers, many of whom receive payments from hard-to-find government agencies with unresolved facility issues.
Colton said these were not historically initiatives that an economic development agency would bring to the table.
“But they’re way behind,” she said, adding that she was proud to be part of a New Jersey leadership team that “sees this as an economic priority; not just a moral obligation; not just the right thing to do.