The state’s economy is slowly improving and incomes are inching up, but things are still not improving financially for New Jersey's neediest people.
According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2014 American Community Survey, the average cash-assistance payment to the poorest individuals and families in New Jersey totaled just $3,314 -- that's nearly 11 percent lower than in 2013 and one-third less than in 2010. And a smaller proportion of the population is eligible for such assistance: 2.4 percent of the state’s households in 2014, down from 2.7 percent in 2010.
The numbers are troubling, but not surprising, according to Raymond Castro, senior policy analyst with New Jersey Policy Perspective, a progressive think tank focused on state issues.
"It's because they have not increased the grant since 1988 and fewer and fewer people are eligible," Castro said. "They make it very difficult even to be eligible for it."
In New Jersey, cash assistance -- formerly called welfare -- takes two major forms.
Temporary Assistance to Needy Families or TANF, was created as part of federal welfare reform in the 1990s to provide a maximum of 60 months of cash aid to families with dependent children.
Childless adults may receive General Assistance (Work First NJ) payments. These have tight income and resource limits, and as a result are for people who are very poor.
According to the, 27,787 families received TANF assistance in July, the most current data available. That's a drop of 24 percent in two years. General Assistance cases also declined, by 33 percent over two years, to 27,787, and the number of people receiving emergency cash assistance dropped by 20 percent to 4,603 in July 2015.
New Jersey is not the only state where cash assistance payments have dropped, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Calling General Assistance a "safety net of last resort," CBPP said the number ofhas fallen from 38 to 26 since 1989 and "benefits have shrunk in inflation-adjusted terms in nearly every state."
New Jersey's maximum monthly benefit of $210 (that's for people who are disabled or otherwise unemployable, for single adults and childless couples, the maximum is $140) ranked 16th out of those 26 states. Still, New Jersey is better than most for even providing any cash assistance to childless adults, as only 10 other states do.
Anothersaid TANF has done more to hurt poor families than to help them.
"This is a weaker safety net: welfare reform has put poor families — and especially their children — at risk of much greater hardship with the potential for long-term negative consequences, and TANF does little to connect families to work," wrote authors Ife Floyd, Ladonna Pavetti and Liz Schott in a June report.
Nationally last year, little more than a quarter of all people living in poverty received any TANF cash assistance. New Jersey's ratio was barely better -- with 27 of 100 poor people getting TANF aid -- but that's much worse than in 1994-95, when all people living in poverty got cash assistance and then some prior to welfare reform, or even than in 2005-06, when nearly 42 percent of poor families got the help.
That's a situation New Jersey could rectify by spending more state dollars on cash assistance, said Castro, but no one has been willing to do so.
TANF also has strict requirements for participation – including work, education and training -- that make it difficult for people to get the help they need.
Said Castro, "It's just not a viable safety net anymore."