TRENTON – Legislation sponsored by Senator Sandra B. Cunningham and Senator Joseph F. Vitale removing the eligibility restrictions for receiving general assistance benefits under the Work First New Jersey program for people who have been convicted of an offense involving the use, possession, or distribution of a controlled dangerous substance was approved yesterday by a Senate committee.
“This bill is about second chances and giving our residents the reassurance to know that their past actions do not define their future,” said Senator Cunningham (D-Hudson). “We as a state should show compassion for these individuals who ultimately still have families to support, and are working to turn their lives around. This bill could also reduce homelessness in our state; the money from the Work First New Jersey program can go a long way in terms of helping individuals who have just gotten out of prison to pay for shelter stays and different rental assistance programs. It gets them off the streets and under a roof.”
The Work First New Jersey general assistance program provides an essential lifeline for those most in need. Eligible New Jersey residents are provided a small cash subsidy of approximately $140 per month, depending on family size and whether the recipient is disabled.
“This is a crucial safety net for some New Jersey residents, but that net quickly drops out for those individuals who have prior drug convictions,” said Senator Vitale (D-Middlesex). “A person’s family should not be forced to pay a price for something that happened to their loved one in the past. This bill looks to make the necessary changes to bring fairness to those who are trying to rebuild their lives and be productive citizens.”
Prior to 1997, New Jersey’s general assistance program did not deny benefits based on an individual’s drug convictions. In 1996, however, federal legislation was enacted disqualifying individuals with drug convictions from Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). While states were given the option to opt out of this disqualification through legislation, New Jersey expanded it with the creation of the Work First New Jersey program, which disqualified individuals with drug convictions from receiving general assistance as well.
In 2010, recognizing the need to assist individuals who have paid their debt to society and are struggling to reenter as productive citizens, New Jersey passed the “Women and Families Strengthening Act,” repealing the drug conviction ban for SNAP and TANF benefits. This repeal, however, did not apply to general assistance under the Work First New Jersey program. Currently, of the 28 states with general assistance programs, New Jersey is one of only four states that deny benefits to individuals with drug convictions.
S-2806 passed the Health, Human Service and Senior Citizens Committee 8-1 and now heads to the full Senate for consideration.