CUNNINGHAM-VITALE BILL REMOVING RESTRICTIONS ON GENERAL ASSISTANCE BENEFITS CLEARS COMMITTEE

State Seal

TRENTON – Legislation sponsored by Senator Sandra B. Cunningham and Senator Joseph F. Vitale revising the requirements for receiving general assistance benefits under the Work First New Jersey program, by removing restrictions for people who have been convicted of an offense involving the use, possession, or distribution of a controlled dangerous substance, cleared the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee today.

“By removing the restrictions that are placed on drug offenders, we will give individuals in our state the ability to get back on their feet,” said Senator Cunningham (D-Hudson). “However, one of the biggest benefits to this legislation is reducing homelessness in our state. 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 or to qualify to enroll in rental assistance programs around the state, which helps keep people off the streets and under a roof.”

Currently, people convicted of offenses involving the use or possession of a controlled dangerous substance must enroll in or complete a licensed residential drug treatment program in order to be eligible to receive general assistance benefits.  S-601 would permit enrollment or completion of a licensed outpatient drug treatment program to alternatively satisfy this requirement if necessary.

The legislation would remove the lifetime ban on eligibility for general assistance benefits for individuals who have been convicted of offenses involving distribution of a controlled dangerous substance.  These individuals would be subject to the same requirements for drug treatment as individuals with convictions related to drug possession or use.

The bill would also clarify that an individual who has a past drug conviction may receive general assistance benefits without enrolling in or completing a drug treatment program if either the treatment is not available, or the person is excused from enrolling in a treatment program for good cause.

“Families will find comfort and relief in knowing that this assistance will be available to them, despite their backgrounds. This bill looks to bring fairness to those who are trying to rebuild their lives and be productive citizens,” said Senator Vitale (D-Middlesex). “Regardless of their pasts, these individuals have families that need to be cared for, and they shouldn’t be denied that. This bill will provide the necessary help where it’s due.”

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.

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.

S601 cleared the committee 6-0-1 and now heads to the Budget and Appropriations Committee for further consideration.

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