Without Welfare Increases, NJ’s Safety Net Is in Tatters

Hank Kalet | June 30, 2016 | Social
In a cruel irony, the administration’s reinterpretation of the rules denies emergency assistance to the poor because they are poor

Cuts over the past two years to general and emergency assistance and inadequate monthly stipends provided by Work First New Jersey, the state’s welfare program, have left New Jersey’s safety net in tatters, advocates say.

Work First, which manages federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funding (the federal welfare program), has not increased its monthly payments in 29 years and now provides one of the smallest stipends in the nation. At the same time, advocates say, the Christie administration is denying more applications for emergency assistance than in the past as part of a concerted effort to reduce aid, cutting off hundreds of potential recipients and starving homeless shelters of funding. The system, shelter providers say, is in crisis.

Emergency assistance was the “glue that kept the (shelter) infrastructure together,” said Connie Mercer, executive director of Homefront in Mercer County. “And now without it, the sector is in huge trouble and the people we serve are in desperate trouble.”

The Christie administration is cutting funding through a reinterpretation of the rules governing assistance. They essentially are denying aid to the destitute because they are destitute — lacking savings, living in dangerous housing or abusive situations, and working at unstable jobs.

These “are the most economically needy” in the state, said Mary Gay Abbott-Young, executive director of the Rescue Mission of Trenton, and their “need is tied to substance abuse, mental illness, race, etc. — all of the problems we associate together keep these people spiraling down.”

“You are taking someone who is physically sick, who is beaten down, who has mental health and substance-abuse problems, and you want them to navigate a system that has become increasingly complex,” she said.

Democratic lawmakers are hoping to address the TANF stagnation. They’ve passed two bills: one would expand monthly stipends for Work First by 30 percent over three years; the other would eliminate caps on family size — Work First New Jersey currently prohibits households that receive assistance from getting additional money for children born after qualifying for the program, which can cost families more than $100 a month.

In addition, they have added $16.5 million to cover the expansion in the budget they sent back to Gov. Chris Christie on Monday.

Christie’s $34.5 billion budget had cut funding for Work First and emergency and general assistance, citing shrinking workloads. The administration also has been applying increased scrutiny to the emergency and general-assistance programs in an effort to ensure that only those entitled receive benefits. The administration plans to increase funding for compliance-review teams who are being tasked with assessing decisions made by county welfare boards. It believes this will make the program more efficient and ensure that only those with the greatest need receive funding.

The Democratic version of the budget was approved Monday by the Senate and Assembly, adding a total of $275 million to Christie’s plan, and awaits action by the governor. He has until June 30, Thursday, to act.

Bill S-1854, which ends the Work First family cap, was approved 24-14 in the Senate and an identical bill, A-3410, was passed with a 51-24 vote in the Assembly. The bills need to be merged before receiving final legislative approval.

Bill S-1829, which increases the Work First stipend by 30 percent over three years and then indexes it to inflation was approved by a vote of 24-14 in the Senate and 51-22 in the Assembly. It now heads to the governor.

Democrats are hopeful Christie will leave in place the funding, which advocates for the poor says is needed to address extreme poverty in the state, and that he will sign both bills when they get to his desk. Sen. Paul Sarlo, a Bergen County Democrat and chairman of the Budget and Appropriations Committee, said in a release that the increases will help meet the state’s responsibility to “care for the disadvantaged and those suffering from neglect” and that he hopes “the governor will recognize the value for these services and keep them in the budget.”

Democrats said they will move forward with the two bills regardless of whether the administration approves the added funding.

Advocates for those on Work First, which include a coalition of clergy members, shelter and service providers, and advocacy groups like the Anti-Poverty Network and the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness, have been calling for increasing the stipend for several years. The current stipend, $424 a month for a family of three, has not been raised since it was established in 1989 and has about half the buying power it originally had. It is among the lowest stipends in the region – New York pays about $800 a month to families of three – and comes to $5,088 a year. The federal poverty line for a family of three is $20,900.

New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal-leaning think tank, estimates that there are 312,000 children living below the poverty line in New Jersey, with 139,000 of them living in families that earn less than $10,000 annually. NJPP also estimates that half of all children who are eligible for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families under Work First are African-American and another 33 percent are Latino.

Ray Castro, who wrote a report on TANF stagnation for NJPP in February, says that it leaves the program “unresponsive to need” both because the stipend is so low and because it leaves many who should qualify ineligible for the program. That has a residual effect on emergency assistance, because you have to qualify for Work First to qualify for EA.

A group of clergy members and other faith leaders authored a letter to the Legislature calling for the 30 percent increase. The Rev. Sara Lilja, director of the Lutheran Episcopal Advocacy Ministry of New Jersey, one of the clergy members, said that African-Americans and Latinos are being hit hardest by Work First’s shrinking buying power.

“(This) is mostly felt by children of color,” she said during a press call earlier this month. “We understand that this is a moral issue that has racial implications. The faith community is greatly disturbed by what we see as an injustice.”

Renee Koubiadis, the new executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey, said increasing Work First stipends would make life easier for about 80,000 parents and children and another 28,000 childless adults who already are enrolled in Work First, while making the program accessible to others living in extreme poverty.

Work First, she added, is the “lowest level of the safety net,” but it offers cash and support services that “provide a boost up the income ladder, allowing families to move from welfare into self-sustaining work.” Unfortunately, she said, the current stipend of $424 a month for a family of three means that “life for New Jersey’s poorest residents has to be about daily survival, not building toward the future.”

Even as the Work First’s TANF stipends have essentially stagnated, advocates say, the Christie administration has used what shelter providers say is a narrow interpretation of the rules to cut back on emergency-assistance payments. EA applicants can be denied aid if they are deemed to have caused their own homelessness or have failed to plan adequately to prevent potential homelessness. If someone loses a job, lacks transportation making access to work difficult or has a problem with a landlord, they can be deemed responsible for their lack of housing, advocates say. And if they lack savings or have not planned for an emergency, they can be denied, as well.

Jeffrey Wild, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness, said state compliance teams are overruling county welfare agents and denying applicants who otherwise would have been approved. County welfare agencies “are actually in front of these people and are best suited to know what they need.”

“Perhaps the cruelest way of denying someone their benefits is to say that someone caused their own homelessness,” Wild said.

The population that is most affected by the assistance cuts, Wild said, often deal with an array of problems – mental health issues, drug abuse.

“For them, it is a catch-22,” he said. Most are unable to plan or accrue savings. “They are disorganized, and they need help by virtue of their illnesses, but now you are saying they caused their own homelessness because they didn’t plan properly.”

That ignores the reality of homelessness and economic need, Wild said.

“You can become homeless without a lot of advance notice,” he said. “You can get sick, there can be a flood in your apartment. The notion that you can’t get EA unless you’ve planned adequately — if they could plan, they wouldn’t be homeless.”

Abbott-Young of the Rescue Mission of Trenton said the emergency assistance cuts also affect the state’s homeless shelters, which rely on reimbursement from the state to fund their facilities. The shelter system relies on two basic sources of money: state assistance provided through programs like emergency assistance, and donations from the community. The money is used by the shelters to cover costs, which include maintenance and upkeep, food, purchase of equipment, insurance, and provision of services. In many areas, the shelters are the primary places that the homeless and those living in extreme poverty can gain access to medical, mental health, employment and other services.

“You can’t take money out of the system and then expect the system to provide the emergency response,” she said.

Linda Flores-Tober, executive director of the Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless, said emergency-assistance payments are used to fund temporary housing, which is how the funding “gets down to the shelter level.”

Flores-Tober said the high rate of denials is leaving the shelters with empty beds, which makes it difficult to serve not only those on emergency assistance but others who need temporary shelter but do not receive aid.

“The shelters primarily serve people on public assistance,” she said. “(The shelters) were getting money and whatever extra (came in from donations) would be given to people who do not qualify for EA.”

The danger, she said, is that the lack of funding could cause some shelters to close or alter their mission, making it even more difficult for those at the bottom of the income ladder to get help.

Homefront, in Mercer County, is facing the same issues. It runs a shelter for families in Ewing that should be full, given the need in the county. But the second floor of its new facility is half empty because many of its clients have been denied EA.

Mercer said she had one client, a mother of five whose husband had been on active duty. Her husband stopped providing money for the kids and she was in danger of becoming homeless. She applied for emergency assistance, but she was denied for lack of planning.

Homefront staff offer similar stories – women who fled abusive situations but were denied because they voluntarily left their homes, mothers reached their lifetime caps, others who lacked childcare and lost their jobs and their residences denied for failing to plan. They would have qualified for emergency in the past, Mercer said, but now they are being turned away.

“In the past, we were able to help people get back on their feet as taxpaying citizens,” she said. “Now they’re hanging on by the skin of their teeth.”

The original headline for this story was changed after it was published.