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Ruiz, Vitale Legislation to Expand and Improve Work First New Jersey Program Advances

Trenton – The Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Committee approved legislation today to expand and improve the Work First New Jersey Program, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tempore M. Teresa Ruiz and Senator Joe Vitale. The improvements align with a report recently released by New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP) and emphasize the goal of lifting individuals, families and children out of poverty.
“Our public assistance programs must be focused on lifting individuals out of poverty, placing them on a path towards self-sustainability and ensuring a smooth transition as they shift towards independence,” said Senator Ruiz (D-Essex). “The changes approved today will do just that, making the Work First New Jersey program more accessible and allowing it to better serve our state’s most vulnerable by placing a greater focus on improving long term financial stability. This has been a pressing issue for some time and I am grateful my Assembly colleagues have followed our lead in swiftly advancing this meaningful legislation.”
The bill, S-2329/A-3905, would increase benefit amounts to ensure no families remain in deep poverty, defined as having income below half the federal poverty level. Increasing benefit amounts will in turn increase the income eligibility thresholds for the program so more people are able to qualify. In addition, the bill would expand eligibility to include individuals enrolled in institutions of higher education as well as certain lawfully present immigrants who are currently disqualified from the program. 
“The expansion of this program is the right thing to do in normal times, in moments of crisis it is an imperative,” said Senator Vitale (D-Middlesex). “Government must be the security New Jersey is desperate for – we need to make sure people can stay in their homes, put food on their table and get the health care they require – that is true now, and that will be true when this is all over. I hope the Governor swiftly signs this legislation into law.”
The bill would additionally expand the types of activities that can fulfill the program’s work requirements to encourage more education and job training that can assist in obtaining better, more sustainable employment. 
“New Jersey fell from being one of the top performing states in helping low-income families to one of the worst,” said Ray Castro, Health Policy Director at New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP). “Only a fraction of New Jersey families living in deep poverty are receiving basic assistance during their greatest time of need, and that is a direct result of punitive state and federal policies enacted over 20 years ago. Thanks to Senator Ruiz and anti-poverty advocates, that will soon change. By expanding eligibility for TANF, raising benefit levels to account for the state’s cost of living, and expanding education and training opportunities for parents, Senator Ruiz’s bill will reduce poverty and promote economic security in every corner of the state. A boost in direct financial assistance gives families flexibility to use the income in ways that best help their household, whether it’s rent, diapers, medicine, clothing, or school supplies.”
The legislation would also create a more gradual exit ramp for those transitioning off the program to support and encourage gainful employment and help individuals and families avoid a financial cliff. 
“WorkFirst New Jersey, the state’s Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, has historically been punitive towards our poorest families. As a result of the harmful policies established in the program and without any significant changes in the last twenty years, this critical safety net has been disappearing with a 91% decline in enrollment between 1996 and 2018,” said Renee Koubiadis, Executive Director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey. “Due to historic and structural racism, two thirds of Black and Hispanic children are in poverty in New Jersey and many of them are not getting assistance through TANF. With the COVID-19 public health crisis and its current and future impacts, now is the time to reform this key program so that it continues to be a vital safety net during times of need to help lift families out of poverty and help poor children and their parents truly thrive.”
Importantly, the bill would also provide presumptive eligibility in the program during the COVID-19 public health crisis. An applicant who appears eligible at the time of application would be presumed eligible and provided immediate need assistance. 
The bill appropriates $17 million for the program.
The bill passed the Senate on April 13.