No, New Jersey’s Poorest Aren’t Offered a ‘Very Large’ Package of Benefits

The Department of Human Services Commissioner says families in WorkFirst NJ are offered a ”very large” package of benefits from other programs. But that's just not the case.

Published on May 18, 2016 in Economic Justice

In defending basic assistance to New Jersey’s poorest families in the face of questions about increased deep-child poverty, Department of Human Services Commissioner Elizabeth Connolly told the Assembly Budget Committee this week that these families are offered a ”very large” package of benefits from other programs.

The committee’s questions about that basic assistance provided through Work First NJ (the state’s name for TANF, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) came on the heels of NJPP’s groundbreaking February report, which found that:

• Assistance has not increased in 29 years

• A family of three receives just $424 a month – an amount that now represents just 25 percent of the federal poverty level, contrasted with the 61 percent it represented in 1981

• New Jersey provides the lowest benefit in the Northeast, and the 40th lowest in the nation when housing costs are considered, falling behind even Kentucky

• This erosion in basic assistance has contributed to an alarming increase in deep child poverty

Unfortunately for these poor children, the commissioner’s defense is simply not supported by the facts.

The biggest surprise was that she inferred that housing assistance is part of that package. In fact, only 2,937 New Jersey families and individuals that relied on WorkFirst NJ as their main source of income received public housing and Section 8 last year, according to data from HUD. That’s just 6 percent of all WorkFirst NJ households. What’s more, despite its very high housing costs, New Jersey does not provide a housing allowance as part of its basic assistance, as New York and some other states do.

The families receiving housing assistance are the lucky ones because the waiting lists for public housing have reportedly gotten so long that applications are no longer being taken anymore. So, most families aren’t offered any housing assistance and must rely entirely on their $424 a month cash assistance to pay for housing (in addition to clothes, school supplies, and some other necessities).

TANF-benefit-housing-counties-01On average, based on HUD’s Fair Market Rate, that’s only about a third of the rent for a modest two bedroom apartment in New Jersey assuming that every penny of that assistance went to housing. That explains why so many WorkFirst families get evicted and placed in shelters at far greater public expense.

The commissioner also included child care in the package of services these families are offered. But less than 9 percent of all WorkFirst NJ families receive child care, according to the department’s own statistics. This is distressing, since it is well known that quality child care is vital to giving children in poverty a fair shot. The reason so few WorkFirst NJ families receive child care is that the state only provides child care when the parent is in a working or in job training. And even this paltry benefit is diminishing. In the last three years alone, the number of children in child care has been reduced by about a third, resulting in a $11 million decrease in state funds for this vital service.

The other major benefit included in WorkFirst NJ families’ “very large” package of benefits is nutritional assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program, also called food stamps. But that program has its own limitations. While most WorkFirst NJ families receive this benefit, it only pays for one basic need (food), and assistance is far less than it should be. The average SNAP benefit per person for each meal is only $1.32, which is one of the main reasons many families run out of this assistance towards the end of the month and use whatever’s left from their cash assistance to put food on the table.

Even with SNAP benefits added to the mix, WorkFirst NJ families continue to live in dire poverty, as this boosts total assistance to just 55 percent of the federal poverty level, an inadequate measure of true poverty in high-cost states like New Jersey. For example, when the U.S. Census took into account a state’s cost of living and all other benefits a family receives, including SNAP, they found that the number of families living below the poverty level actually increased significantly in New Jersey, unlike in most states.

The commissioner also mentioned child support. Only about a quarter of all WorkFirst NJ families receive child support, according to the federal government – and the state keeps most of the money to offset the cost of the cash assistance the family receives.

Despite being wrong about this so-called “very large” package of benefits for New Jersey’s poorest families, the commissioner’s testimony did include a glimmer of hope. When asked flat out several times by the Budget Chair whether the level of cash assistance was “sufficient,” she would not answer. Perhaps that means the administration recognizes there is a problem after all and will help the efforts currently underway to restore some of the value of WorkFirst NJ. For the sake of the state’s poorest kids, let’s hope so.