As state lawmakers say they want to make New Jersey more affordable this legislative session, essential workers and advocates from For The Many NJ gathered outside the State House in Trenton to ask: “Affordable for who?”
All New Jersey residents should have safe, stable housing, nourishing meals, and the ability to meet the basic needs of themselves and their families and build a future. Yet, far too often, policy proposals that emphasize “affordability” would actually enrich the already wealthy and big businesses, without making New Jersey truly affordable for all.
“New Jersey should be a state that’s affordable for working families and the everyday heroes who carried us through the pandemic: health care workers, child care workers, educators, food service and grocery workers,” said Peter Chen, Senior Policy Analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP) and emcee of the event. “We can’t afford to hand out more tax breaks to yacht and mansion owners while so many low-paid and moderate-income working families struggle to make ends meet. There needs to be a recognition that our “affordability crisis” is a crisis for workers who aren’t paid enough or aren’t given enough hours to cover everyday costs.”
New Jersey is one of the wealthiest states in the nation, but many residents struggle to keep a roof over their heads, put food on the table, and meet the basic needs of themselves and their families. One in ten residents live below the federal poverty level, and 76 percent of New Jersey’s low-income households have trouble paying rent, utilities, or other housing costs.
“We have worked hard throughout the pandemic. At the airport, we have kept travelers safe, and as we begin the recovery process, we need to know that we will be protected,” said April Fitch, a security officer at Newark Liberty Airport. “It is important to breach the gaps in education, housing, and – most importantly – working conditions. The state budget needs to be planned with all New Jerseyans in mind. We need to work together to guarantee that we are all thriving. That means providing relief to our underserved communities, protective measures to all essential workers, and establishing hazard pay for all frontline workers so that we may have a shot at financially recovering from this pandemic.”
Speaking outside the State House, essential workers made clear that every dollar lost to broad-based tax cuts would be one dollar less to make the public investments needed for everyone to thrive. Policies that leave out those hurting the most and for whom high costs and prices take the biggest chunk out of their earnings do not promote affordability.
“New Jersey’s lack of affordable homes for working families is nothing short of a crisis,” said Rose Leonard, a teacher in Mercer County who saw her rent increase from $1,900 to $2,700 per month during the pandemic.“It creates instability, prevents families from building savings, and creates an uncertain environment for our children who have to move from district to district to follow the availability of a home their families can afford. When we talk about making New Jersey more affordable, housing security and stability must be at the foundation. New Jersey needs more affordable homes for more people.”
New Jersey state government’s financial outlook is stronger now than even before the pandemic thanks to strong revenue collections and an influx of federal funds. This provides a generational opportunity to bring immediate relief to families struggling to balance their budgets through direct assistance, food, housing, and medical care, and expanding tax credits that help those having the most trouble making ends meet.
“I risked my life during the pandemic to make sure others could eat and shelter in place. But I only received aid after I fought to win the Excluded New Jerseyan Fund, which gave me and my family assistance. We need to make sure no one is left behind,” said Felix Gallardo (she/her), a member of Make the Road New Jersey and participant in the 24-day hunger strike who worked at a food factory during the pandemic where multiple coworkers died from COVID-19. “The Legislature should fully fund the Excluded New Jerseyan program with a billion dollars so no one is left behind instead of tax giveaways to the wealthiest New Jerseyans and businesses.”
The speakers also pointed to the billions of dollars New Jersey received from the federal government to help residents and communities recover from the pandemic, saying the state should use these funds as soon as possible to bolster the state’s public health infrastructure and help the people who have given the most and are still struggling to recover from the pandemic.
“Why not allocate some of the billions of dollars the state received in the American Rescue Plan toward addressing the staffing crisis to keep nurses at hospital bedsides?,” asked Banita Herndon, HPAE Local 5089 President and a nurse for more than 25 years, including 18-plus years in the Emergency Room at University Hospital in Newark. “Hazard pay and quarantine pay could be one of the best tools to retain those workers who are leaving and motivate others to join the healthcare profession.”
“The New Jersey State School Nurses Association, which represents over 1000 certified school nurses across the state, urges New Jersey to fully fund schools next year,” said Donna Pleus, President of the Association. “As we work to help students stay safe, healthy, and learning, our schools need full funding to provide children with high-quality health services from certified school nurses and mental health services from qualified providers.”
“The last two years have been incredibly challenging and we have learned a lot about what students need to thrive in challenging circumstances,” said NJEA President Sean M. Spiller. “As we seek a return to normalcy in the upcoming school year, we urge New Jersey to invest heavily in our public schools so we can provide all the support and resources our students need to overcome the challenges of the last two years and to seize the opportunities that are ahead.”
“The Gospel writer Matthew, teaches in the Bible, ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart is also, Matthew 6:21,’” said Reverend Sara Lilja, Executive Director of Lutherans Engaging in Advocacy Ministry NJ (LEAMNJ). “Where we direct our spending in the state budget points to our priorities as New Jerseyans. Do we prioritize our neighbors over big corporations, and lift up those who have limited choices over those who have many? This is the time to clarify our priorities as a state, we must direct our support to those most in need”.
# # #
For The Many is a statewide coalition of more than 30 organizations working to expand funding for essential services and improve budget practices to meet current and future needs, especially for communities that have been historically left behind.