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 Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee.
The first bill, S-1854, sponsored by Senate Health Committee Chairman Joseph F. Vitale, 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 provide a helping hand to individuals and families who are struggling to make ends meet. The goal of this legislation is to extend assistance to more families in need to alleviate the negative effects of poverty,” said Senator Vitale (D-Middlesex). “As a family grows, especially one that is already living on a low income and receiving temporary assistance to make ends meet, its needs grow. This bill will repeal current law that punishes low-income women for having children, because ultimately, it’s the children that suffer.”
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 child poverty rates are already too high,” added Senator Vitale. “When families don’t have enough, the chances are greater against children staying healthy, doing well in school or succeeding.”
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.
“As costs increase year in and year out, from food to rent to utilities to everyday living expenses, families with dependent children receiving cash assistance through the Work First New Jersey program have seen no increase,” said Senator Whelan (D-Atlantic). “This bill ensures that the benefit amount is aligned with current economic trends and realistic needs.”
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.
The bills were both released from the Senate Health Committee and now head to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for consideration.