TRENTON – Legislation that would repeal the family cap in the Work First New Jersey (WFNJ) program and increase the amount of benefits under the program was approved today by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.
The first bill, S-1854, sponsored by Senate Health Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vitale and Senator Ronald L. Rice, would repeal parts of the “Work First New Jersey Act” which prohibit a household from gaining additional cash assistance benefits as a result of the birth of a child. Currently, the law prevents an increase in the amount of a cash assistance grant if a child is born unless the child is born 10 months after applying for benefits or the birth is a result of rape or incest. The law also has certain exceptions for families with a working parent and for children born to minors.
“State assistance programs like Work First New Jersey are intended to alleviate the negative effects of poverty on individuals and families struggling to make ends meet,” said Senator Vitale (D-Middlesex). “As a family grows, especially one already living on a low income and relying on temporary assistance, its needs grow. Prohibiting additional assistance because a woman had a child is essentially punishing the children because it denies them of having their basic needs met and destroys the chances of growing up healthy and finding future success.”
New Jersey Policy Perspective reported recently that the state has seen an alarming increase of children living in poverty since the Great Recession. It further reports that since the family cap’s implementation in 1992, over 20,000 children in New Jersey have been denied assistance, which in turn creates enormous stress and greater hardship for these families.
“Our current law basically punishes low-income women for having children, without regard for what is in the children’s best interest,” said Senator Rice (D-Essex). “Child poverty rates in New Jersey are already too high. This legislation will help address the issue by providing growing families with the assistance they need to survive.”
According to the Welfare Rules Database from the Urban Institute, and NCSL legislative summaries, at least 19 states currently have a family cap policy and an additional two states have a flat cash assistance grant regardless of family size.
The second bill, S-1829, sponsored by Senator Vitale and Senator Jim Whelan, would increase the maximum amount of cash assistance benefit for families participating in the WFNJ program over three years to factor in cost of living adjustments.
“While living expenses rise every year, families with dependent children receiving cash assistance through the Work First New Jersey program have seen no adjustment to their benefit amount to reflect the increased costs,” said Senator Whelan (D-Atlantic). “This legislation simply ensures that the assistance provided is realistic and consistent with current costs.”
Currently, New Jersey’s maximum benefit amount for WFNJ households is $424 per month for a family of three. Under the bill, the maximum benefit amount would be increased to $466 in FY 2017, $509 in FY 2018 and $551 in FY 2019. Subsequently, the maximum benefit would be annually adjusted according to the cost of living adjustment applied under the federal Social Security program.
New Jersey Policy Perspective also reported that the amount of assistance families receive has been stagnant for 29 years. As a result, assistance is worth less today than half what it was worth in 1987.
“Our safety net programs provide assistance to those who need it, but they must be indiscriminate and at the appropriate level to have an impact,” added Senator Vitale.
The bills were both released from the Senate Budget Committee and now head to the full Senate for consideration.