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Opinion: Policy, Poverty, and Homelessness

Two relatively unknown programs can change the lives of thousands of impoverished New Jerseyans.

Question for that diminishing coterie of newspaper readers: What has become the fastest-growing if not largest section of major dailies like the Star-Ledger, arguably New Jersey's flagship paper? It’s the ever-lengthening listings of foreclosure notices and county sheriff sales of homes and properties that have come under the gavel and the gun. Many a Garden State family will end up not just moving into temporary rental property but homeless. The economic crisis that has given us the foreclosure crisis is now feeding a homelessness crisis.

What’s to be done? Groups like the Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness and the State Anti-Poverty Network are doing all they can to assist families in need. But they face the imminent loss of one of their few remaining tools for saving vital rental housing: the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Act (TANF) and its Emergency Contingency Fund (ECF).

Together TANF/ECF has been subsidizing jobs and rentals for thousands of at-risk New Jerseyans. But TANF/ECF will expire on September 30 -- unless Congress refocuses its attention from midterm mania and approves an extension of this crucial program for endangered families.

The outcome of this effort is in doubt. TANF/ECF is a small but key part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), President Obama’s economic stimulus package. This is the same stimulus package that has roused the ire of America’s new version of the 19th Century Know Nothing Party -- the Tea Party. Even though every economist not affiliated with Fox News has written that ARRA prevented the Great Recession from becoming the Second Great Depression, the Tea Partiers are against it.

Dubbed by Sarah Palin as the party of “Hell No!” to anything smacking of the Obama agenda on the economic recovery front, the Tea Party seems to have a lock on Republicans, at least nationally. Thankfully, most state-level Republicans retain more than a vestige of their Tom Kean roots in moderation and sensibleness.

TANF/ECF provides funds for up to 83 percent of rental housing for eligible low-income or unemployed families in states like New Jersey, which have seen at least a 50 percent rise in poverty. The program also subsidizes jobs and is responsible for helping an estimated 1,500 jobless get work. It is administered by the State Department of Human Services, which has been a consistent supporter of the program even during the wrenching transition from Corzine to Christie.

Meanwhile, the problems of the poor multiply like a virus. The state is reducing by 20 percent the Earned Income Tax Credit, a work-incentive program for the unemployed. One-third of state financing for Legal Services -- which help the poor access benefits and fights foreclosures -- will be cut. Completely eliminated are any cash payments to jobless adults who have no children. “Their meager cash assistance -- $140 a month -- often allows them to find living space with relatives or friends, or gives them limited funds for basic necessities of personal hygiene or food,” according to Herb Levin of the Mercer Alliance.

It only gets worse. Fifty-thousand parents will be denied healthcare coverage under cuts to NJ FamilyCare. And payments for full-time care for disabled family members will end. State support of free and reduced-cost school meals will be cut. Funding will be ended for state-sponsored after-school programs. Money for emergency heating and energy assistance will be reduced.

As summed up by the Rev. Bruce Davidson, Director of the Lutheran Office of Governmental Ministry, “This is not the time to reduce assistance or increase expenses of people for whom recovery is a long way off. People in poverty are continually making sacrifices. Most have nothing more to give. This state’s budgetary priorities must promote shared recovery, benefitting all.”

In the days leading up to the anniversary of 9/11, the media couldn't get enough of a lunatic-fringe pastor threatening to burn the Koran (a threat now rescinded). The focus instead should have been on the fate of millions of Americans who may soon fall from desperation into despair. Reader, can you spare not a dime but a moment to contact your representative in Congress and ask him or her to set aside partisanship long enough to vote in an extension of TANF/ECF?

(Thanks to Herb Levin, executive director of the Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness, for his help with this article.)

R. William Potter is an attorney in private practice specializing in issues confronting clean energy providers. He is based in Princeton.

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