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Opening Another Front in NJ's War Against Hunger and Homelessness

A trio of bills intended to reverse the inaction of the Christie years extends benefits to state's most vulnerable citizens when they're in crisis

Homeless
Credit: Emma Lee/WHYY

New Jersey lawmakers took steps on Monday to make the state a kinder place, as a Senate committee advanced three bills to help low-income residents and those struggling with basic needs.

The measures are meant to reverse action, or inaction, during the past few years of former Gov. Chris Christie's tenure that affected needy New Jerseyans. It's another example of Democratic legislators moving forward efforts stymied by Christie that now have a good chance of being enacted by the Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy. Two measures would help prevent homelessness and a third would restore food assistance to the level it was four years ago.

One bill (S-839) would have New Jersey provide at least $21 per year in energy-assistance payments to families eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called SNAP, in order to qualify for an additional $90 per month in food aid. Until July 2014, the state gave SNAP beneficiaries $1 a year to qualify for this extra SNAP assistance, but the federal government changed the rules in 2014 so households had to receive at least $20 in energy assistance to stay eligible. The Legislature acted and twice sent Christie a bill to increase the assistance to $21 a year and both times Christie vetoed the bill.

"Many of the affected states stepped in to provide aid, as those states recognized that during the heating season, families were making difficult tradeoffs, spending more on heat and less on medication, food, and other items," said Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer), a co-sponsor of the bill along with committee chair Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex).

Missed opportunities

"New Jersey had the opportunity to step in and help our vulnerable citizens but we did not … They say the third time's the charm. I hope that is the case so we can ensure there is a support system in place for those who are among the neediest residents of our state."

Several advocates testified about the need for the bill, especially as Washington contemplates further cuts to SNAP; the Trump administration has proposed giving recipients $90 a month to spend, with any additional amount to which they are currently entitled replaced by a monthly box of juice, grains, and canned food sent to them by the government.

"Since New Jerseyans lost the Heat and Eat benefit in 2014, low-income SNAP-eligible households have struggled to put food on the table," said Barbara Scholz, director of advocacy for Fulfill, formerly known as the Foodbank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties. "Many of the elderly and disabled have incomes under $1,000 a month. Any cut, especially one of over $100, has been devastating."

Watching pennies, not dollars

Ray Castro, director of health policy with New Jersey Policy Perspective, said the measure will help as many as 160,000 households. Over the past three years, by not increasing the heating assistance to $21 a month, the state lost as much as $450 million in federal funds for nutrition assistance.

"Households with seniors and people with disabilities are hurt the most because of the way SNAP benefits are calculated," Castro said in a statement. "The average person receiving SNAP benefits now sees a paltry $1.29 a meal. Obviously, this is a big problem in a high-cost state like New Jersey. A recent study found that there are counties in New Jersey where the average meal cost is up to 63 percent greater than the SNAP benefit."

A fiscal note for the version of the bill that moved during the last legislative session estimated the higher energy subsidy would likely cost the state as much as $3.5 million more a year, but most or all of that could be paid with funds from the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

The additional spending is also likely to boost the state's economy. Turner said that Moody's Analytics reports that every dollar in SNAP benefits generates $1.73 in economic activity.

The bill cleared the committee by a vote of 8-0 and was sent to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for another hearing. The Assembly version of the bill, (A-3010), cleared a committee last month and is awaiting action by the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

Helping the homeless

Two other bills, which complement each other, were approved by the Senate health panel to prevent homelessness in the state.

S-866, co-sponsored by Sen. Vitale and Sen. President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), would create a permanent housing assistance program to help the disabled, chronically ill, and long-term unemployed who face the termination of temporary services. It is meant to replace other "pilot" programs that expired three years ago without being replaced.

Christie allowed the state's Housing Assistance and Housing Hardship Extension programs, which provided emergency aid for the disabled, their caregivers, the elderly, the poor, the homeless, and the chronically unemployed, to expire in 2015 without replacement. Those pilot programs helped about 3,000 people and were funded by a combination of state and federal dollars provided to the counties and administered by the county social services officials and nonprofit organizations. According to the state, those who had been enrolled in HAP and HHE were allowed to stay in the programs until their eligibility ran out, but no new clients were enrolled.

"Because the programs in place were temporary, the assistance they provided didn't provide the security and certainty for people already facing insecure and uncertain living conditions," said Sen. Vitale. "Some individuals have already been left homeless and countless others are struggling to secure housing aid. But they all deserve the stability of a roof over their head."

The legislation replaces those pilot programs with a permanent emergency assistance plan for those who meet certain criteria: very low income, receiving general-assistance benefits, Social Security recipients in imminent danger of homelessness, disabled or caring for a disabled dependent, or over 60 years of age and chronically unemployed. People in any of these categories could get help through the new program if they are in danger of losing emergency rental assistance after 12 months.

Maura Sanders, chief section counsel at Legal Services of New Jersey, is supportive of both homeless prevention bills as necessary to treat individuals' extenuating circumstances.

"There is recognition that for some individuals, the time limits that exist should have some extensions," she said. "We should look at people as individuals, instead of just imposing hard-and-fast time limits … The two bills really complement each other, because they are talking about different circumstances that individuals find themselves in."

The other bill, (S-1965), would allow an individual to get additional lifetime emergency-assistance benefits when experiencing a severe hardship. Currently, a person can receive 12 months of emergency assistance, with a potential extension of six months, but once they use up that amount, there is no possibility of getting additional help. The Emergency Assistance Program provides rental assistance grants to prevent individuals from becoming homeless. These programs also help pay for other necessities, including utility security-deposits or debts, home-heating fuel, and past-due rents and mortgages.

Under this measure, also sponsored by Sen. Sweeney, a person would be eligible to receive additional assistance seven years after using up what used to be a lifetime limit on help. Should a person who once got emergency assistance be in danger of becoming homeless seven years or more after getting the emergency help, they would be able to get additional assistance.

"This is emergency assistance that helps those who experience disadvantages through no fault of their own and now are facing the threat of homelessness or are facing other crisis situations," Sen. Sweeney said in a statement following the bill's release from committee. "The extension of this aid can provide a crucial buffer that will help those in need at a crucial time. It can make a real difference in their lives."

Both homeless prevention bills were approved by the committee by an 8-0 vote and were sent to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for further consideration.

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