New Jerseyans who receive state help to make ends meet will see monthly payments rise 20 percent, the second significant increase in two years after decades of no growth to the benefit programs. For a family of three, the change adds nearly $100 to the household budget each month.
This change to the cash benefits — which took full effect days ago, but will be retroactive to July — comes on top of a 10 percent boost Gov. Phil Murphy included in the previous year’s state budget, according to the Department of Human Services. The increase was a priority for Democratic legislative leaders who are responsible for crafting the annual spending plan.
The cash benefits associated with the initiative, WorkFirst NJ, once known as welfare, are distributed based on income guidelines for families through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. The General Assistance program assists individuals and childless couples. Both efforts also offer services like housing assistance, counseling, job training, and parenting classes, as well as transit passes, childcare subsidies, and connections to the state’s Medicaid program.
Firm financial footing
DHS commissioner Carole Johnson said the additional funding shows the Murphy administration’s commitment to helping struggling families regain their financial footing.
“Providing increased income assistance to our neighbors in need is the right approach,” she said. “It will help families with additional income at a crucial time and put more money back into the New Jersey economy, which will benefit everyone.”
According to a state report in May, there were more than 27,650 people benefiting from TANF and at least 10,500 receiving GA funds.The state does not track the number of individuals eligible for these resources, but the caseloads in both programs have declined significantly year after year. The current budget includes $49.9 million — a mix of state and federal dollars — for TANF payments and $29.3 million in state funds for GA subsidies. That’s up from $41.7 million and $27.7 million, respectively, in the previous spending plan.
Anti-poverty advocates welcomed the increased funding and said that together the payment hikes represent the largest boost in welfare programs nationwide in recent years; they also praised state officials and legislative leaders for their work on the issue.
According to last year’s ALICE report from the United Way of Northern New Jersey, nearly 40 percent of all households in the Garden State — or 1.2 million people — were living in poverty or considered among the working poor, unable to afford basic needs like food, shelter, and clothing. (ALICE stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.) The situation is exacerbated by the high costs of living here.
“This program provides a safety net that helps protect against the severe consequences of poverty so these families in need are given the ability to care for themselves and to recover from financial hardship,” said Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex) who championed the additional investment.
Under the new funding guidelines, a family of three will receive $559 a month in TANF benefits, up from $466 last year; this adds up to an extra $1,116 a year. (In 2016, the same family would have received $424 a month.) An individual receiving GA payments will see their benefit rise from $154 to $185 a month, DHS said.
In the past, TANF levels were “sorely inadequate for families to climb out of poverty,” said Renee Koubiadis, executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey. She said the back-to-back increases are “a much needed boost so that more children in poverty will receive assistance and their parents can access work activities and supports needed to thrive in our state and become independent.”
Increase past due
The change also drew praise from Ray Castro, director of health policy at New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal think tank, who said the program has not seen a cost-of-living increase in the past 30 years. “This is not only the right thing to do for families living in poverty, but it is one of the best investments New Jersey can make as these funds are spent immediately and locally in communities across the state,” Castro said.
TANF is available to those who earn less than they would collect from the WorkFirst program, after a number of deductions are applied using a formula designed to determine their need. There is a five-year limit to these benefits, although exceptions can be made in limited cases. Residents can apply for WorkFirst NJ at their county’s Board of Social Services or online at www.njhelps.org.
“We, along with our partners at the local County Boards of Social Services, want to ensure that New Jersey residents have access to these safety-net services,” said DHS’s assistant commissioner Natasha Johnson, who leads the department’s Division of Family Development. “We encourage residents to see if they’re eligible, apply, and learn about additional resources.”