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Interactive Map: Most of NJ’s Poorest Kids Not Getting Help They Need

Even families receiving cash assistance are getting payments that were set in the late 1980s -- and haven’t been raised since

New Jersey's main cash-public-assistance program is stuck in the 20th century and supports fewer than 2 of every 10 children living in poverty, according to a recent report that calls for legislation to increase payments and cover more children.

The report issued last week by New Jersey Policy Perspective, a progressive think tank based in Trenton, indicates that New Jersey provides the smallest monthly Temporary Assistance for Needy Families payment in the Northeast. It further states that the maximum $424 payment for a family of three has not been updated since 1987. Considering inflation, today's TANF payment is worth less than half of what it was when it was first set 29 years ago.

It is also 700 percent less than the $2,800 a month that the state Department of Human Services has deemed is necessary for a family of three to "maintain a decent and healthy standard of living."

Serena Rice, executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey said the NJPP analysis "makes clear how much state policy is responsible for unraveling the safety net that we provide to the neediest children in our state."

Nicole Brossoie, a DHS spokeswoman, disputed that characterization. She said the TANF cash payment "remains unchanged because it's only intended to be a supplement." The full package of services also includes Medicaid, job training and placement, emergency assistance, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or food stamps, child care vouchers, and drug treatment. Additionally, she said, the state uses TANF funds for the Earned Income Tax Credit, which was increased this year and for parenting-skills training and childcare once a family has exhausted its five-year lifetime maximum of support.

According to the report, New Jersey DHS figures show that 58,238 children received TANF in July 2014, while U.S. Census Bureau data estimated 315,563 children were living in poverty that year, meaning more than 257,000 children did not receive cash assistance from the program.

There are two major reasons why children would not be covered by TANF. For one, a family is eligible if income is as high as 150 percent of the grant, or $636 per month, said Raymond Castro, NJPP senior policy analyst. That amount is only about a third of the federal poverty limit of $20,900. And because the grant amount has not changed in nearly 30 years, neither has the eligibility threshold. Another reason is because New Jersey law prevents payment for any children who are born to families while they are receiving this public assistance. Since the cap was imposed in 1992, more than 20,000 children have been denied assistance, NJPP stated.

NJPP and advocates are calling for legislators to lift this cap, as six states have since 2002. It is also seeking an increase in monthly TANF assistance, first by increasing the payment by 30 percent a year over three years and then instituting annual cost-of-living increases.

The total cost of these changes over three years would be about $100 million. An annual 30 percent increase would cost about $15 million the first year, $45 million in the third, setting a new monthly payment of $551 in 2019, according to NJPP. The organization estimated that removing the cap on new children would cost $4.2 million, with some money saved in administration expenses.

Analilia Mejia, executive director of NJ Working Families, said there is no reason the state cannot find the money for these reforms. Gov. Chris Christie is trying to repeal the estate tax and has given billions in tax credits to corporations, "but our children we cannot find the funds to help feed?" she said. "I find that shocking. I find that appalling."

The report shows that federal and state spending on TANF has dropped 73 percent, from $491 million in 1996, the year the federal welfare reform act was signed, to $133 million last year. That 20-year old reform restructured what had previously been Aid to Families with Dependent Children, imposed a workfare component to the program and capped the time a recipient could receive TANF at five years.

Brossoie said that is not the case, because total TANF assistance funding includes all the supplemental services. At the same time, though, the amount of money New Jersey gets from the federal government remains unchanged since 1996. Castro estimated that amount at a little more than $400 million.

New Jersey also uses state dollars to support long-term TANF families who are exempt from the five-year maximum due to medical or disability circumstances, she added.

Castro said he is optimistic because this is the first time in decades that both the president of the Senate and speaker of the Assembly have been supportive. Both men were at a press conference last Thursday to discuss the report.

"This is not acceptable; we should be doing better," said Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson). "New York has raised its limits three times since 2000."

New York's payment of $789 is second only to Alaska's $923 per month, according to data from the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

"I think that as legislators we need to work on that and shepherd that as part of the initiative ... to rebuild our middle class," Prieto added.

Both houses of the Legislature have been holding hearings on issues related to poverty and are expected to advance a reform agenda this year.

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