As poverty rises, cuts target aid

Asbury Park Press
By Michael Symons

Poverty is rising, demand for food stamps has rocketed and the job market remains tepid at best, more than three years after the economy began to crater.

Against that backdrop of need is a harsh reality anti-poverty groups say they struggle to overcome: Much of the public doesn’t want to hear about it. Driven by Gov. Chris Christie here and Tea Partyers in Washington, the conversation is all about cutting government services — the faster the better.

As a pair of reports measuring societal challenges facing New Jersey were released last week, one about poverty and the other about child well-being, one of the common themes was about using the sobering numbers to try to change the conversation and wrest back a voice in the public-policy debate.

There were also disagreements about how aggressively to push their case.

“We’re always much too polite when it comes to this fear of raising the issue of class warfare,” said Meara Nigro of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition. She said wealthy companies benefit, and programs for the poor and middle class are cut. “We just need to be better at messaging. The Republicans are great at it.”

Adele LaTourette, director of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition, said that while polls indicate people are concerned about poverty and hunger, they vote for candidates that don’t share those priorities in elections. There’s a disconnect there she thinks is driven by race.

“Racism plays a huge role in the fact that people don’t see it, don’t want to see it,” LaTourette said. “I think you get into an “us and them.’ People feel that if there are people living in poverty . . . as long as it’s not them — they’re not OK with it, but they’re OK enough with it. They would never say they’re OK with it, but I think you get into that incredible dichotomy of the way this society is structured. I know that’s a huge thing to say, but that’s what I think is true.”

With the Legislature’s intensive review of Christie’s budget proposal getting under way in hearings that begin this week, anti-poverty groups have keyed in — with some familiar refrains — on portions they want reversed before a plan is adopted in three months.

A restructuring of general assistance included in Christie’s proposed budget would cut benefits to people in the program by 7 percent to 11 percent, said Herb Levine, executive director of the Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness.

“So where is the parallel sacrifice on the millionaires’ part?” said Levine, bemoaning what he calls a “fundamental mean-spiritedness that is at the core of the current assault on government.

“These are the poorest, poorest people. And you’re asking them to take a cut while you’re giving a free pass on this side,” Levine said. “That’s got to be our message. We’ve got to put that on the ballot.”

Christie vetoed legislation that would have temporarily raised taxes on income exceeding $1 million. Senior policy analyst Raymond Castro of New Jersey Policy Perspective was also critical of planned cuts in business taxes worth nearly $200 million in the first year, growing to $690 million by the fifth year.

“It’s really alarming,” Castro said. “We are cutting assistance to low-income people at the same time we’re providing hundreds of millions in tax breaks to large corporations. It’s just unacceptable, and I think it would be unacceptable to the public if they understood that. And I don’t think that they do.”

Maybe an education campaign would help, said the Rev. Bruce Davidson of the Anti-Poverty Network.

Davidson said he thinks one could be built around last year’s cut to the Earned Income Tax Credit, which was trimmed from 25 percent of the federal benefit to 20 percent for its roughly 485,000 recipients. Low-wage earners can get a credit, or even a refund if they don’t owe taxes. That saved the state $45 million.

A family of three may have experienced the equivalent of $300 tax increase, Davidson said, equal to roughly one week’s worth of its annual income.

“I would humbly suggest that we communicate with the general public that if everyone in the state was willing to contribute one week of their wages in additional taxes, we would solve pretty much every problem we raised today,” he said. “But instead we’re putting a very unfair burden on the lowest-income earners, and we’re not putting a burden on other folks. There is a question of fairness.”

Even among advocates for the poor angry about budget decisions being made in Trenton and Washington, some moderated their message and said the last few years have been tough on most people.

“I do think the public is listening. I also think it’s a difficult time for everyone,” said Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, which just published its annual Kids Count report.

“The state’s budget crisis is a serious one. We don’t have the resources we had 10 years ago to make investments,” Zalkind said. “And families are hurting. I think for a time that made families look inward. But my sense is we’re still a compassionate state, and there still is a commitment here overall.”

“One of our challenges is that almost everybody is concerned about their own survival,” Castro said. “Even a lot of people who have jobs are wondering how long they’re going to be able to keep their jobs. Somehow we have to broaden the dialogue. We’re always saying we’re a very generous country. Well, we need to be very generous not only when the economy doing well but when the economy is not so much.”

Attorneys Maura Sanders and Joshua Spielberg of Legal Services of New Jersey, which released its annual poverty benchmarks report last week, said acknowledging the wider impacts of the recession helps make the public more open to hearing their message and could help their recommendations gain traction with Republicans.

“The majority of New Jerseyans have suffered reductions in incomes, have suffered economically, have suffered the pain in this recession,” Sanders said. “It isn’t just those in poverty. It’s those in the middle class. It’s the majority of folks in New Jersey. And you have to acknowledge that everyone is suffering.”

Regarding the one-week-pay campaign that was kicked around, for instance, Spielberg noted anyone who’s been furloughed over the last few years has given up some salary already.

“One of the things we have to do in New Jersey is give something that either some Republicans or the governor will sign onto. When we increase the rhetoric about the millionaires, sometimes we turn off the other side,” Spielberg said. “We have to have an approach that appeals to the other side’s conscience.”