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Thursday, May 26, 2022

Bill would expand public assistance access for N.J. families in extreme poverty

As a single mother of three, Alina McKnight winces when she remembers trying to juggle her kids with her job and college courses.

McKnight would bring her children with her to class or put them in the storage room at work, with no money to spare for child care.

She relied on public assistance programs like Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) to survive. So she was happy to be on hand Tuesday at a news conference at the Statehouse in Trenton where two lawmakers announced their plans to expand TANF so more of the 800,000 New Jerseyans who live below the federal poverty level can get help.

“I’m an example that it works, but it could be better,” said McKnight, who eventually got her degree and a job helping other TANF recipients find work.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) and Assemblywoman Angela McKnight (D-Hudson) insist their bill would make TANF better.

TANF is a federal program, but states have discretion in determining eligibility for recipients. In New Jersey, the program is also known as Work First New Jersey.

Under Ruiz’s and McKnight’s bill, TANF eligibility would be expanded to families who live at up to 50% of the federal poverty level, which equates to an annual income of $11,515 for a family of three. The current eligibility threshold is 30% of the federal poverty level, meaning $6,909 for a family of three.

TANF’s reach has fallen 91% since federal lawmakers enacted it in 1996, leaving many working families trapped in poverty, according to New Jersey Citizen Action, which organized Tuesday’s news conference. Families of color have been disproportionately impacted.

Advocates blame that decline on barriers built into the program that prevent families in need from qualifying for benefits, including time limits on how long recipients can collect benefits, work and education restrictions, administrative hurdles, and more. Only 9,976 families were participating in TANF as of February, said Brittany Holom-Trundy, a senior policy analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective.

“We are reaching only one in six families in poverty. This stagnation means this key safety net is shrinking at a time when there is increased need,” said Renee Koubiadis, anti-poverty program director at New Jersey Citizen Action.

Even those who receive assistance do not get enough to make ends meet, Holom-Trundy said.

“In one of the wealthiest states in the wealthiest nation on earth, poverty is a policy choice, and we can and must do better,” Holom-Trundy said. “State lawmakers can help families get the support they need by increasing benefit levels to reflect New Jersey’s cost of living, providing residents with meaningful work and educational opportunities, and removing needless barriers to resources.”

Beyond expanding eligibility, Ruiz’s and McKnight’s legislation includes about 30 changes that would open the program up to those who need it, Koubiadis said.

Assemblywoman Angela McKnight (D-Hudson) speaks at a news conference on April 26, 2022, about a bill she sponsored that would expand access to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

One change would reduce the program’s work requirement from 40 hours to 30 hours a week, which would give recipients more time to do job skills training, Assemblywoman McKnight said. Another change would allow them to work for a for-profit company, instead of a nonprofit or charity as is currently required, she said.

“Our primary goal must be to offer low-income families the opportunities to become self-sufficient and financially secure by giving them the support they need to overcome socioeconomic inequalities. This piece of legislation does that,” she said. “This is not a handout. This is about us lifting each other up.”

Amy Torres is executive director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. The bill would help end the “institutionalization of poverty that has the double edge of cutting communities of color the deepest,” she said.

The proposed TANF changes “will not undo these historic harms overnight, but they will plant a firm stake in the ground to say that New Jersey does not believe that people need to prove their worth just to be eligible for support, that New Jersey does not believe that you need to pay your way or stay here for a long time in order to belong and be supported,” Torres said.

State legislators have spent the month of April in budget hearings but will resume considering and voting on legislation next month. This bill is in the human services committees of both the Assembly and the Senate.

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