LAKEWOOD — The township where more than two dozen residents have been accused of scamming welfare programs has one of the highest concentration of public-assistance recipients in the state.

A new report finds that families in Lakewood received 14 percent of the benefits paid out by a child healthcare fund even though the township only accounts for 2 percent of the state's children.

The Catastrophic Illness in Children Relief Fund paid out nearly $5 million to families in Lakewood while families in the state's two largest cities — Newark and Jersey City — received $627,000 during the same time period, an Asbury Park Press investigation found.

The report's findings are consistent with other publicly available data indicating that this Ocean County community — the fastest growing in the state as a result of an influx of Orthodox Jews and Latino immigrants — has a disproportionate number of families who are struggling financially.

Children on welfare

State and federal authorities this summer arrested and charged 26 Lakewood residents with ripping off welfare programs such as food stamps and Social Security. Prosecutors say couples underreported their income in order to qualify. Some of the couples earned millions of dollars during the years they were collecting government assistance, officials say.

The fraud amounted to more than $2.4 million in stolen benefits, according to the criminal complaints.

Among the funds that officials say were defrauded was the Catastrophic Illness in Children Relief Fund, which is meant to help struggling families pay for expensive out-of-pocket health bills.

The Asbury Park Press report says the high number of claims from Lakewood is not the result of fraud but because the township has a high concentration of special-needs children as well as community organizing that made possible for more families in Lakewood to know that this fund existed.

Struggling families

Out of the 43,571 children in Lakewood, 21,600 of them receive government benefits, according to a U.S. Census estimate from 2015.

In total numbers, that makes Lakewood second to Newark, which had an estimated 37,965 children on welfare.

Lakewood is No. 1, however, for two-parent households receiving benefits.

About 18,152 of the children in Lakewood who get welfare are in married households. Newark comes second with 7,752 of its children living in married households.

This is significant because normally two-parent households are better able to care for children financially.

What's different about Lakewood?

For one, Orthodox Jewish residents comprise at least half of the township. Religious traditions favor larger families, which are more expensive, and religious studies often mean young fathers are not earning income.

The average family size for married couples in Lakewood is 5.08, the largest in the state, according to U.S. Census data.

The average family size for married couples in new Jersey is 3.36. It's 3.77 in Newark and 4.46 in Passaic.

Lakewood is the seventh largest municipality in the state, but its child population is third after Newark and Jersey City.

The median income of Lakewood also is among the lowest in the state.

In New Jersey, the median income is $106,656 for households headed by married couples and it's $88,823 for families with children.

In Lakewood, the married household median income is $47,408 and the median for families with children is $37,133.

Lakewood's statistics also stand out when looking at ethnic and political data.

Unlike the rest of the state, Hispanics in Lakewood average higher income than non-Hispanic whites — $42,934 to $40,781. And unlike other cities with high concentrations of child poverty, Lakewood voters overwhelmingly and consistently vote Republican.

Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. 

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