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.
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.
“As a family grows, especially one already living on a low income and relying on temporary assistance, its needs grow,” said Senator Vitale (D-Middlesex). “To deny additional assistance to a struggling family due to the birth of a child only deprives children of the sustenance they need to grow.”
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.
“Child poverty rates are already too high in New Jersey,” said Senator Rice (D-Essex). “We cannot punish low-income women for having children without bearing in mind how this affects children and how it perpetuates the cycle of poverty.”
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.
“Increasing benefit amounts for families with children that receive cash assistance to ensure consistency with current living costs is responsible policy,” said Senator Whelan (D-Atlantic). “This bill ensures that the intended purpose of the Work First New Jersey program to assist families in need is not only met but is also well aligned with current market conditions and trends.”
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.
S-1854 cleared the Senate by a vote of 24-14 and now heads to the Assembly. S-1829 was approved by a vote of 24-14 in the Senate and 51-22-4 in the Assembly and now heads to the Governor for consideration.