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Senate Panel Advances Bills to Boost Cash Payments to Poor Families

Measures vetoed under Christie may have new life in Murphy administration

poor children

New Jersey's poorest families could receive additional cash assistance under proposals intended to update the state's welfare program, a system critics contend is dangerously out of date and fails to reach nine out of 10 children in need.

The Senate health committee advanced legislation on Monday, with bipartisan support, to increase the monthly cash payments for families by 10 percent a year over the next three years; if approved, it would be the first raise in more than 30 years.

The panel also OK'd a bill to eliminate "family caps" on welfare payments, which call for payments based on income level, regardless of the number of children a parent may be supporting. Critics said the provision, designed to ensure women were not financially rewarded for having children, only exacerbated poverty and failed to limit family size.

"It's an incredible hardship on families," Maura Sanders, with Legal Services of New Jersey, said of the current program's design. "We certainly think these bills are a good first step."

Updating Work First

Democratic lawmakers have tried for years to update the state system, known as Work First NJ, but former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, vetoed previous versions of legislation designed to enhance payments or end the family cap. But a welfare expansion is likely to have a far better chance under Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, who took office in January with promises to address a number of progressive priorities to improve economic and racial justice.

Work First, which is used as a conduit for federal funds dispersed under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, was the outcome of a welfare reform led by then-Gov. Christie Whitman in 1997. The program involves monthly payments of up to $424, and assistance with childcare, transportation, job training, and other services; participants can collect for up to five years.

More than 15,500 families were receiving Work First payments as of December, according to state data, a decline of nearly 3,700 from the previous year. Cape May and Bergen counties saw their caseloads drop by close to one-third over those 12 months. (Those families may also have access to food stamps, housing subsidies, Medicaid, and other public assistance.)

Census data suggests that median income levels continue to rise in the Garden State, and poverty has dipped slightly, but more people continue to struggle economically than did a decade ago. Figures from 2016 show that 10.4 percent of residents lived below the federal poverty line, or $20,160 for a family of three, compared to a low of 8.6 percent in 2007.

Beyond reach of program

But studies that factor in the high cost of living in the region suggest at least 15 percent of residents are in poverty and more than a third struggle to pay for basic needs. According to Ray Castro, the healthcare program director with the progressive research group New Jersey Policy Perspective, while Work First now aids some 29,000 children, as many as 300,000 youngsters are in families beyond the program's reach.

Murphy prioritized economic justice during his campaign and his human services transition team stressed the need for improvements to Work First. The program has shrunk nearly 50 percent in three years, according to the transition report, and has not been effective in helping recipients improve their skills and re-enter the labor market.

"Increasing benefit amounts for families with children that receive cash assistance are needed to try to keep pace with current living costs," said Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), who chairs the health committee and sponsored both bills along with Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex). "The goal of this legislation is to provide the appropriate level of assistance to alleviate the negative effects of poverty for families in need," Vitale said.

To help address these concerns, one bill (S-489), would boost the monthly payments 10 percent a year, for three years, and require annual cost-of-living adjustments after that. The current maximum payment of $424 a month would rise to $466 the first year, then $509, then $551, followed by an annual increase based on a rate determined through the federal Social Security program.

Renee Koubiadis, head of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey, noted that, as a child in Camden County, her family received the same $424 a month New Jersey still pays out today. "It was not enough to survive on then. And I can't fathom how families can survive on that benefit level" today, she said, "even with other assistance they might be receiving."

The other bill (S-490) repeals the family-cap policy, which would enable families with more children to receive higher payments. While the concept was once a popular element of welfare reform, it has been shown not to work, and half a dozen states have eliminated the policy since 2000, Castro said.

"It was a solution to a problem that didn't exist," Castro said, adding that studies show low-income women do not have more children than mothers with more resources. In a family-cap program, he said, "basically the child is being punished for being born."

The bills now head to the Senate budget committee for further review; Assembly versions await a hearing.

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