Advocates Clash with Administration Over Number of Poor in New Jersey

Chase Brush | September 30, 2016 | Social
Community leaders, others cite ‘crisis’ in social services, but administration’s data shows fewer people signing up for general assistance and emergency aid

poor people cold
Jessica Abreu was recently working as a shelter supervisor at the Passaic County Women’s Center when a victim of domestic abuse came to her seeking help. She had just lost her housing, Abreu said, and wanted to apply for emergency assistance from the state.

The woman’s daughter had been raped by her husband a few days earlier, and she had dealt with the issue by calling the police. That resulted in several visits to her apartment from law enforcement officials and workers at the Department of Children and Families. But the landlord didn’t like people “coming and going,” Abreu said, so he kicked the woman out.

“When she came to us and we sat her down to apply for emergency assistance she was denied,” Abreu said. “The social worker said she caused her own homelessness by not following the rules of the landlord.”

Abreu offered the story at a meeting of the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee yesterday, where committee members heard from advocates and community leaders who say the state’s social welfare system is in “crisis.” State appropriations for emergency and general assistance programs in New Jersey have stagnated over the past several years, they note, while the current administration’s interpretation of eligibility requirements for those services has narrowed. Both factors have made it harder for the poor and homeless in New Jersey — its “most vulnerable” residents, they said — to receive the help they need.

“We will fiscally bankrupt this state if we don’t change the situation for the children,” said Kent Pipes, a minister and member of The Affordable Homes Group, Inc. “We’re only fooling ourselves. A child with a decent place to live, a decent education, has a future.”

Funding for the state’s emergency and general assistance programs has long been a point of criticism for social welfare advocates in the state. New Jersey’s welfare system, Work First New Jersey, which manages federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funding (the federal welfare program), has not seen an increase in funding in 29 years, leaving the stipend provided to the needy by the state one of the smallest in the nation. At $424 a month for a family of three, the current stipend has about half the buying power it had when the program was first established; New York, by comparison, pays about $800 a month. The federal poverty line for a family of three is $20,900.

The meeting was supposed to feature testimony from the Department of Human Resources, but its commissioner, Elizabeth Connolly, declined to attend. Instead, debate centered on new data that shows a decline in the number of individuals receiving benefits from TANF and other emergency and general assistance programs in the state over the past few years.

Democrats early this year attempted to reverse that stagnation by passing two bills, one that would expand monthly stipends for Work First by 30 percent over three years while tying the program to inflation, and another that 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.) But the measure was later vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie, who had opted to cut funding for the programs in fiscal year 2017. The program’s expansion would have added some $16 million to the $34.5 billion budget he eventually passed.

The lack of funding has left groups like the New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal-leaning think tank, fuming over what they see as its effects on the state’s poor and homeless. Jon Whiten, testifying on behalf of the group yesterday, said that there has been a “long history of neglect” among lawmakers in the state when it comes to providing for assistance programs, which he said have been reaching fewer and fewer people each year. He said that for a family of three with an earned income of $10,000, “you’re still desperately poor, but you’re not eligible to get any temporary assistance to get out of poverty.”

“We’re not suggesting that TANF benefits are designed to be a permanent replacement for income, but clearly, if you’re that far behind, how are you supposed to lift yourself out of poverty if you’re struggling to pay the bills?” he asked.

And yet that’s not the whole picture. While funding for these programs have languished, the state has seen a dramatic — some would say unbelievable — decrease in the number of individuals seeking out and receiving financial help through TANF and other emergency and general assistance programs.

The change in monthly caseloads, which has seen a nearly 40 percent drop over the past two years, is in fact one of the factors Christie cited as reason for his decision to cut from the services in 2017, arguing the funding simply isn’t needed. In 2012, the monthly number of TANF recipients was 103,202; this year, it was 56,239, according to analysis conducted by the Office of Legislative Services.

Those numbers were a major source of tension during the hearing, as members of the committee, chaired by state Sen. Bob Gordon (D-Bergen), attempted to discern what was driving the decline. Elizabeth Connolly, acting commissioner of the Department of Human Services, argued in written testimony that the drop in recipients is the result of fewer individuals applying for assistance, and that “more has been done to buoy the state’s most vulnerable than in any other administration.” She said that is largely the function a stronger economy, which in the last year has produced a 5 percent increase in the median household income and a 1.2 percent decrease in the official poverty rate, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau statistics.

But the advocates, many of whom were from local homeless shelters, community churches, and statewide nonprofits, told a different story. Together their anecdotes and testimonies helped paint a picture of a safety net they said is “tatters,” struggling to serve the homeless and poor across New Jersey who must rely on the state to pull them out of their situations. Some accused the Christie administration of intentionally denying applications for emergency assistance in an effort to reduce aid, and that such a tactic more accurately explains the drop in welfare recipients over the last few years.

“The poverty rate is 26 percent higher than it was in 2007, median household income is down by 6 percent since 2007, and the unemployment rate is up by 12 percent since 2007,” Whiten said “So to suggest that these decreasing caseloads are merely a natural byproduct of the booming economy is misguided to say the least.”

Renee Kouibadis, executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey, levied a similar charge. She said the DHS has “implemented a policy change that has driven more people into homelessness,” hoisting up eligibility standards to the point where few people qualify for them. Emergency assistance applicants can be denied aid on any number of bases, she said, such as if they are deemed to have caused their own homelessness or lack savings or have not planned for an emergency. Connolly, for her part, denied the suggestion that the decrease is the result of a calculated effort by the state to restrict social security benefits, saying it was “simply not true.”

State Sen. Sam Thompson (R-Middlesex), who sat in on the hearing, said the decline may be a sign that the programs are working, as they are, after all, intended for emergency situations. “The successes of a temporary or permanent program should not be gauged on how many people are on the program, but how many people are successfully moved off the program,” he said.

The commissioner’s absence — Gordon read her testimony to the room off a sheet of paper — served as another source of drama at the hearing. State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) called the administration official’s refusal to attend the meeting “frustrating,” and proposed the Senate pass a resolution granting the panel subpoena power, so that next time they could force her to do so.

“Like in any bureaucracy, this comes from the top,” Weinberg said. “It seems to me there is a prevalent philosophy here as to find every means possible, legally, not to serve the population, not the opposite.”

Part of the problem, others testified, is a lack of available data on the issue. Some argued that the DHS has done a poor job clarifying the process through which services like housing and food stamps are granted to recipients, making it difficult to determine where the decline in caseloads begins. Still others maintained that county welfare agents are being given too much discretion in determining who meets eligibility requirements and who does not, leading to situations like the one Abreu described.

Gordon and Weinberg said with an upcoming change in leadership — Christie’s second term ends next year, and many believe he’s likely to be replaced by a Democrat — it might be time to “totally revamp” the programs.

“They’re getting an increase in phone calls, and more people showing up in their waiting room, and that would indicate an increase,” Gordon told NJ Spotlight. “So we’re trying to get to the bottom of this. And if there has to be a change in the way the programs are structured, and we heard that some things like the benefit levels haven’t changed since 1987, or the way eligibility is determined … This seems like an appropriate time to take a fresh look at how we deliver these services.”

Later, Abreu called nonprofits like hers “rock bottom,” the only place the state’s poor and homeless — and victimized — can go for help. She said that while the woman who was evicted from her apartment eventually took her case to court and was granted emergency assistance, the harm that the experience caused went beneath the surface.

“Let me tell you, she was granted it, but she was not free of the revictimization, the shaming that was tied to that,” she said. “To have to sit in welfare and explain to a very educated social worker that you filed because your husband raped your daughter. You couldn’t stay.”

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