Senate Advances Bill to Expand Assistance to Needy Families, Provide Immediate COVID-19 Aid  

Colleen O'Dea | April 14, 2020 | Social, Coronavirus in NJ
Public policy group’s report says state’s WorkFirst NJ welfare program does not do enough to help move lower-income families out of poverty
Credit: Office of Attorney General/Tim Larsen
Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), a sponsor of the bill, said that “in moments of crisis it is an imperative,”

New Jersey lawmakers advanced Monday a significant overhaul of the state’s cash public assistance program for families.

Simultaneously, a public policy organization issued a report that the benefit currently does not help enough needy families or do enough to move families out of poverty.

Advocates say the bill (S-2329), which has a $25 million price tag at a time of uncertainty for the state’s fiscal health, would go a long way toward providing real assistance to families and ensuring that children are not penalized by some of the current programmatic restrictions in receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) through the state’s WorkFirst NJ (WFNJ) welfare program.

To address the current situation, the bill would provide presumptive eligibility for TANF applicants who appear to be eligible in the program during the COVID-19 public health crisis. An applicant who appears eligible at the time of application would be presumed eligible and provided immediate need assistance.

Increasing cash payments, covering more families

While lawmakers have been meeting via conference call to pass bills related to the COVID-19 crisis, which has killed more than 2,400 New Jerseyans as of Monday, the reform bill goes well beyond the current circumstances, impacting some 20 provisions of the program. For instance, it would both increase TANF cash payments and expand the program to cover more families.

Yet, like the other measures that one or both legislative houses passed Monday, the bill passed without any prior hearings or public comment. The Senate approved it 26-0, with most Republicans abstaining. The Assembly version of the bill was not on the lower house’s agenda.

Following the Senate session, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said he expects committee hearings to resume and would prefer to see measures receive greater consideration through that process, but that was not necessary in the case of TANF reform.

“We think TANF reform is important,” Sweeney said. “We’re doing things outside the norm and we’re going to slow down a bit and focus more bills in committees; it does give you a better process. But this is something that we’ve talked about for years and looked at for years.”

Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), one of the bill’s sponsors, echoed the sentiments of a number of advocates in saying the expansion now is vital given the current circumstances.

“The expansion of this program is the right thing to do in normal times, in moments of crisis it is an imperative,” Vitale said in a statement. “Government must be the security New Jersey is desperate for — we need to make sure people can stay in their homes, put food on their table and get the health care they require — that is true now, and that will be true when this is all over.”

During an online press conference, advocates said that reform is overdue.

“Many in New Jersey have known for some time the shortcomings in the federal program TANF,” said  Renee Koubiadis, executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey (APN), during an online press conference releasing a new report on the program from the progressive-leaning New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP).

Only program of its kind

“The policies established in this program in 1996 prevent our lowest income families from gaining access to the full supports that help them move beyond poverty and reach their full potential to contribute more fully in the state’s economy,” Koubiadis continued, adding this is the only program of its kind aiding families with children in the state during a crisis.

NJPP’s report, Promoting Equal Opportunities for Children Living in Poverty, termed WFNJ/TANF “harsher” than the federal law. It found that the number of families helped by TANF has declined 91% since 1996, and the state is only helping 15% of families living below the federal poverty level, a worse rate than the nation’s 22% receiving TANF. Fewer than 11,000 families were getting TANF assistance as of last December, according to the latest data  from the state Department of Human Services. Yet, according to the report, 94,700 New Jersey families with 264,000 children live in poverty.

The bill the Senate passed would spend $25 million and increase benefit amounts to ensure no families remain in deep poverty, defined as having income below half the federal poverty level. Additionally, the bill would increase the income eligibility thresholds for the program so more people would be able to qualify. It also would expand eligibility to include individuals enrolled in institutions of higher education and certain immigrants who are in the country legally but currently disqualified from the program. And it would expand the types of activities that can fulfill the program’s work requirements to encourage more education and job training that can help people ultimately get better, more sustainable employment.

“It is crucial that we fix the system so that our public assistance programs are focused on lifting individuals out of poverty, placing them on a path towards self-sustainability and ensuring a smooth transition as they shift towards independence,” said Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), another sponsor, in a statement. “While it is a meaningful first step, our work is far from over … This has been a pressing issue for some time and I am encouraged that we are finally taking the steps necessary to enact change.”

Help with cost of living, education and training

Ray Castro, director of health policy at NJPP and author of the report, said that the number of families living in poverty is virtually the same as it was when the program took effect as part of national welfare reform, despite New Jersey being among the wealthiest states in the nation.

“It is so alarming that far fewer families receive basic assistance today than in 1996,” he said. “This is a direct result of punitive federal and state policies that perpetuate rather than alleviate poverty.” The bill would help this “by expanding eligibility for TANF, raising benefit levels to account for New Jersey’s cost of living, and expanding education and training opportunities for parents.”

Currently, the TANF benefit for a family of three ($559 a month) puts a family at only one-third of the federal poverty level, which is now $21,720 for a family that size — despite New Jersey increasing that benefit by nearly one-third over the last two years. That’s because the state previously had not raised benefits in three decades.

Prior to the welfare reform in 1996, New Jersey was helping 93% of families living in poverty, the report shows. Koubiadis said there have been no substantial changes to WFNJ in the last 20 years.

“Without these changes, this program will continue to shrink and will cease to be a safety net for our poorest residents,” she said. “We need to reform this key program now so it continues to be a lifeline for those facing extreme financial hardship in our state. It’s what you or I would want during these times.”

Reforming WorkFirst is also a matter of social justice. The report shows that black and Hispanic children in New Jersey are three times more likely to live in poverty than white children. Roughly eight in 10 New Jersey children receiving TANF are either black or Hispanic. Koubiadis said the imbalance is due to “historic and structural racism,” and the program’s current rules mean many African American and Latino children are not getting any help through TANF.

“The state’s historic TANF policy of discouraging full economic opportunity is cruel, shortsighted and discriminatory,” the report states, asserting that New Jersey’s goal had been to reduce the TANF caseload as quickly as possible, regardless of whether a parent took a job that was so low-paying it was inadequate to support his family.