This op-ed appeared in the May 15, 2016 edition of the Star-Ledger.
With a record amount of wealth held by a relative handful of households while millions struggle to make ends meet, New Jersey isn’t a state where all families have a clear shot at success.
It’s time to reverse course, starting with those families whose kids face the toughest times by partially restoring the basic assistance they need to try to keep their heads above water.
Three factors drive New Jersey’s growing income inequality: nearly all the gains since the Great Recession have gone to the very wealthy, middle-income families have seen their incomes decline and the state has cut support for struggling families. Six years into the recovery, poverty is still the highest it has been in New Jersey in 50 years and what’s called “deep child poverty” – kids living in households earning less than $10,000 a year for a family of three – has continued to increase by a whopping 26 percent.
One of the main causes for deep child poverty is the erosion of basic assistance to New Jersey families facing the biggest economic challenges. Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) has not increased since 1987. If the maximum assistance payment of $424 a month for a family of three had kept up with the cost of living over those 29 years it would be $889 today. In 1989 the grant could at least cover nearly three quarters of the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment. Now, it has eroded to where it covers about a third. That means most TANF families can’t pay their rent, forcing many of them into shelters and ramshackle motels at far greater public expense, not to mention the trauma for children who lack stable homes.
For people who face it daily, poverty is more than a statistic. It’s a dangerous condition that significantly harms children’s development, reducing their ability to learn in school or hold a job when they become an adult. The stress from poverty literally rewires a child’s brain, causing permanent damage, research has found. These problems are greatest for the youngest children – and about half of all children in TANF in New Jersey are five or under. And child poverty is not only harmful to those who have to live with it every day – it is also very expensive for all of us — costing New Jersey about $13 billion annually in reduced productivity, poor health and crime. In the words of Frederick Douglass, “it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
Other states are starting to put all this together and deciding to invest in children now rather than pay much more later. Since 2013 alone, 11 states have increased TANF support. New Jersey’s assistance is the lowest in the Northeast and is now below the national average. And when the cost of housing is considered, 40 states – including very poor states like West Virginia and Kentucky – offer more adequate TANF support to struggling families than New Jersey. New Jersey’s TANF benefit has shrunk to 25 percent of the federal poverty level from 61 percent in 1981. What an embarrassment for the second richest state in the nation.
The erosion of TANF support and more restrictive eligibility means that families who get support find it doesn’t go far at all and more families facing desperate times get nothing at all. Since 1988, enrollment for parents and children is down 81 percent even as poverty has increased. The percentage of poor families with children participating in TANF in New Jersey has dropped much faster than the national average. Tragically, all this means that over 80 percent of all New Jersey children living in poverty are not receiving any help.
As part of Assembly Speaker Prieto’s efforts to fight poverty, he and State Senator Vitale have introduced much-needed legislation that begins to address these problems. It would boost TANF assistance by 30 percent over three years. And by requiring annual cost-of-living adjustments, it would also assure that state inaction would no longer deepen child poverty.
To create a state that works for all of us, New Jersey must redirect its policy priorities, away from lucrative tax breaks to corporations and the rich and towards struggling families who only want a fair shot. Creating equal opportunity for all is the key to prosperity. It can only be achieved if New Jersey begins by at least helping those most in need. This important piece of legislation from Speaker Prieto and Senator Vitale would help New Jersey achieve that essential goal.