With more than $3 billion remaining in federal pandemic assistance — and no hearings planned on how to spend these funds — advocates and policy experts held a virtual “People’s Hearing” for members of the public to weigh in on how the federal relief should be used.
“Lawmakers may have said they’re finished with budget hearings after this week, but today’s People’s Hearing sends a clear message: New Jerseyans aren’t finished speaking up for what our communities deserve,” said Amy Torres, moderator of the virtual hearing and Executive Director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice.
The virtual hearing, organized by the For The Many NJ coalition, included testimony from essential workers, community leaders, advocates, and policy experts in support of using the federal funds to provide direct relief and support to families struggling to keep up with everyday costs.
“To advance racial equity and help the people still getting back on their feet from the pandemic, New Jersey should spend its flexible federal recovery funds on their intended purpose: direct relief,” said Peter Chen, Senior Policy Analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP). “Direct relief is itself a transformational investment. Helping people avoid poverty, homelessness, and deprivation reduces pain right now but also builds resiliency for the future.”
Signed into law in March 2021, the American Rescue Plan (ARP) provided billions of dollars in flexible funding for states and local governments to begin reversing the harms done by the pandemic and promote an equitable economic recovery. New Jersey state government received $6.2 billion in flexible aid, more than $3 billion of which is still available.
“New Jersey should not squander this opportunity. As state policymakers consider how to use more than $3 billion in remaining Fiscal Recovery Funds, they should work with communities to identify the best ways to use these funds,” said Ed Lazere, Senior Fellow in State Fiscal Policy, The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “The economic recovery remains uneven and incomplete, with many still struggling with incomes that are not enough to pay rent or afford food.”
Residents from across the state joined the hearing to share their stories and encourage lawmakers to provide more relief to families struggling to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.
“The impact of the pandemic is not over for many who were already struggling in our state,” said Wandalynn Miftahi, a member of the Anti-Poverty Networks Garden State Leaders program who is unable to afford housing on her own. “Mature people who are viable parts of their communities and striving to assist future generations look forward to a more positive, supportive community to live in. With high and rising housing costs, New Jersey must devote more to help people of color access and maintain safe, affordable homes. We must remember everything starts at home.”
The hearing served as a reminder that the pandemic is not over, with many families still living in poverty: 1 in 10 families in New Jersey are currently having trouble finding enough to eat, a third of renters are worried they’ll be evicted in the next two months.
“Between COVID and the current economy, the low- and moderate-income families continue to struggle to pay for basic living expenses,” said Susan Biegen, another member of the Garden State Leaders program. “The Emergency Rental Assistance Program has not been able to keep up with the need with many families being told there is no funding left. American Rescue Plan funds would best be used by providing back rent, utilities, and food assistance so families won’t have to worry about eviction and hunger.”
Some lawmakers have suggested using federal assistance to provide tax cuts to profitable businesses despite a clear need to make the state more affordable for low- and moderate-income families.
“To make New Jersey more affordable for our low- and moderate-income families we must prioritize state revenues and American Rescue Plan funds to increase supports for families in deep poverty, allocate sufficient funds to keep people in their homes, expand health coverage to all kids and uninsured residents, and establish a state child and earned income tax credit,” said Maura Collinsgru, Director of Policy and Advocacy, New Jersey Citizen Action. “These programs will help ensure residents most impacted by the pandemic and rising inflation can not only survive, but thrive.”
Immigrant community members joined the virtual hearing to urge lawmakers to provide further relief to residents excluded from most forms of federal and state assistance — and for the state to invest in language access so all residents can apply for programs and services they already qualify for.
“Two years into the pandemic, there still are more than a half million people left behind from all forms of relief,” said Aida Mucha, Member Leader with Make the Road New Jersey. “It’s a disgrace that half of New Jersey’s federal ARP fiscal recovery funds are still sitting unused and unallocated when families like mine are struggling to pay bills. I worked throughout the pandemic to deliver food to families in quarantine, but I was excluded from aid like so many immigrant essential workers. I urge the state to take action now to provide direct relief to excluded workers.”
“Nearly one in two New Jerseyans is a person of color and almost a quarter of us are foreign born,” said Laura Bustamante, Policy & Campaign Manager, New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. “New Jerseyans speak over 155 languages, one in four households speaks a non-English language at home. With the recent increase in access to status neutral services and programs, newly eligible New Jerseyans are facing linguistic barriers, leaving these landmark initiatives inaccessible. Beyond that racial and ethnic categories currently used in agencies that capture demographic information are overly generalized, rendering distinct populations invisible. If the State is looking to make wise use of the dollars it invests in public programs, language access and data disaggregation will be necessary tools. ”
The pandemic and resulting economic fallout has disproportionately harmed Black and Latinx/Hispanic communities. Policy experts and advocates testified at the hearing in support of targeting aid to these communities to begin reversing racial inequities.
“Before New Jersey can become stronger, fairer and a more affordable state, there must be a commitment to equity and justice,” said Racquel Romans-Henry, Director of Policy at Salvation and Social Justice. “That commitment begins with but is not limited to significant investments in the development of violence interruption, harm reduction and restorative justice hubs; investments in neighborhood maternal health centers; community reinvestment of cannabis revenue; and funding the Office of Legislative Services so that they may prepare racial impact statements for policy changes that affect pretrial detention, sentencing and parole as required by S677 passed in 2018.”
“For the many students in our school who have seen pre-pandemic inequities impact their education at an even greater level, it is important that the state act now and accelerated addressing these challenges,” said Kaleena Berryman, convener of Our Children/Our Schools. “Funds should be allocated for student and educator mental health, building health and safety upgrades, and a concentrated approach to ensure students with disabilities and English language learners receive the extra support needed due to months of lost time. To make this happen, the state must also concentrate of fully staffing the Department of Education.”
“The impacts of the pandemic are still being felt by our schoolchildren and their teachers, especially in lower-income communities,” said Greg Stankiewicz, Statewide Coordinator, NJ Community Schools Coalition. “We urge the Governor and Legislature to allocate $10 million in American Rescue Plan funds to support expanding community school approaches to more low-income public schools, helping nonprofits and universities work together with school districts to provide additional needed services to students and families.”
“As Dickens wrote, we are living in the best of times and the worst of times for our state budget,” said Doug O’Malley, Director, Environment New Jersey. “We have a historically flush budget with an ample surplus as well as an additional $3 billion in reserve through the American Rescue Plan. Unfortunately, we still see ongoing raids to NJ Transit’s capital budget and the state Clean Energy Fund and flat funding to state agencies, as well as lead service lines and water infrastructure that need to be replaced. This is the moment to invest in our environment, clean energy and public health and make historic investments — and give the public a chance to weigh in on this opportunity.”
“New Jersey should not squander this opportunity. As state policymakers consider how to use more than $3 billion in remaining Fiscal Recovery Funds, they should work with communities to identify the best ways to use these funds,” added Ed Lazere of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “The economic recovery remains uneven and incomplete, with many still struggling with incomes that are not enough to pay rent or afford food.”