Who: Renee Koubiadis
Family: Married, 1 daughter
What she does: Executive director, Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey
How she got there: Koubiadis has spent most of her adult life in service and advocacy positions. She was a medical social worker and then spent about 2 1/2 years at what was then known as the state Division of Youth and Family Services working with new foster parents and helping place foster children. For seven years, she was assistant campaign director with the Citizens Campaign, helping bring average citizens into local government decision-making processes and function as citizen journalists, as well as pushing for more transparency in government. Just before taking the helm of APNNJ, she spent two years as advocacy coordinator for the National Association of Social Workers' New Jersey Chapter.
Her unique take on poverty: Koubiadis knows poverty firsthand, growing up poor in Camden County. She did not complete her bachelor's degree in social work at Rutgers-Camden until she was in her ‘30s. "I took a course here and there at community college, but I took the long path because I needed to work," she said. "I couldn't go to school full-time when I was young because I couldn't afford it."
In the meantime, she worked in real-estate property management and liked working with people but felt unsatisfied so she decided to pursue social work. Eventually, she got a master's from Temple University, with an emphasis on administration and social planning. "I've worked around the issues of poverty and social work since then," she said.
Still, it was difficult, because she was helping to pay for her mother's health insurance at the time; her mother had medical issues and her income was just slightly above the cutoff for Medicaid. "I had to sacrifice and pay $400 or $500 a month for her health insurance so she would not get sick or die."
How she got to APNNJ: Koubiadis said that while working in other jobs, she had been volunteering with anti-poverty causes for more than a decade. She has co-chaired Poor Voices United, a group working for economic empowerment of those in poverty, for more than 12 years and has served on the boards of the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness and the Affordable Homes Group, as well as regularly attending meetings and conferences to address poverty. "We help educate others around the state in solving the problem of poverty," Koubiadis said of the network.
Her goals for the Anti-Poverty Network: Growing up in poverty has influenced Koubiadis' views and her goals for the organization. For one, she said the state needs to raise the amount of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits, formerly called welfare for families with children. "That benefit is at the same level as it was the year my family was leaving welfare," said Koubiadis. "It wasn't enough then, and it's not enough now."
The benefit for a family of three is currently $424 a month, the same as it was 29 years ago, but with inflation, it's worth only half what it was. Gov. Chris Christie last June vetoed a bill that would have increased the TANF benefit. She also said the state must raise the minimum wage, currently $8.38 per hour. "The minimum wage here in New Jersey is below the poverty level," Koubiadis said. "Lots of families are the working poor, struggling to meet all the basic necessities. They have to give up one thing to pay for another."
Although $15, the amount Gov. Chris Christie vetoed in August, still isn't enough, she said it would be significantly better than the current wage. Koubiadis said the state also needs to increase its stock of affordable housing so people can have safe places to live for the long-term, rather than short-term sheltering. APNNJ is also seeking an increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit to 40 percent, from the current 30 percent, to move 600,000 people out of poverty, and a reinstatement of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, benefits that lapsed earlier this year.
Why it’s so tough to alleviate poverty: Public perception is one problem. Koubiadis said her organization and others need to do a better job educating the public. "We really need to tell the story of who is poor and why they are poor," she said. "Too many people think that someone did something that put them in poverty. Systems create poverty."
Another problem is the way organizations have typically tried to attack the problem. "For the most part, we look at the issues surrounding poverty in silos," she said. "We really need to look at all the basic necessities a family needs, not just one area … We really need people who have experienced poverty to be part of the conversation, so we know how to meet all their needs."
Koubiadis is confident the problem can be solved. "We have a lot of people around the state committed to helping people who are struggling," she added. "APN is made up of wonderful organizations committed to seeing an end to poverty." This year, the network plans to tackle the issue of structural racism and how it affects poverty. The organization has been working for more than a year on a series of reports on the issue and expects to release the first, giving an overview and history of structural racism and poverty in New Jersey, at its annual summit on October 28 at Middlesex County College.
Something you probably don't know about her: Koubiadis has been a yoga instructor in South Jersey for almost 19 years. She started taking yoga in her teens, when a car accident left her in pain and unable to do other forms of exercise. She has continued with it, and teaches others. "It's one thing I can do for the rest of my life," she said.