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

Trenton – The Work First New Jersey program would be expanded under legislation approved by the Senate today. Authored by Senate President Pro Tempore M. Teresa Ruiz and Senator Joe Vitale, the changes include improvements that align with the report released today by New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP) and emphasize the goal of lifting individuals, families and children out of poverty.
“It is crucial that we fix the system so that our public assistance programs are 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 advanced today will make the Work First New Jersey program more accessible and allow it to better serve our state’s most vulnerable by placing a greater focus on improving long term financial stability. While it is a meaningful first step, our work is far from over and I look forward to continuing these efforts going forward. This has been a pressing issue for some time and I am encouraged that we are finally taking the steps necessary to enact change.”
The bill, S-2329, would appropriate $25 million and 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 admire Senator Ruiz’s leadership on this and I look forward to a swift signing of 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. 
“Despite New Jersey being one of the wealthiest states in the nation, the number of families living in poverty has remained largely the same,” said Ray Castro, Health Policy Director at New Jersey Policy Perspective and report author. “That is why it is so alarming that far fewer families receive basic assistance today than in 1996. This is a direct result of punitive federal and state policies that perpetuate rather than alleviate poverty — but this will soon change thanks to the work of Senator Ruiz and anti-poverty advocates.
“By expanding eligibility for TANF, raising benefit levels to account for New Jersey’s cost of living, and expanding education and training opportunities for parents, Senator Ruiz’s bill will help reduce child poverty and promote economic security in every corner of the state. A boost in direct financial assistance gives families needed flexibility to use the income in the ways that best help their household. This means rent, diapers, medicine, clothing, bus fare, school supplies, utility payments, car repairs, and more.”
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 provides the supports needed to 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.