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TRENTON — Legislation sponsored by Senator Shirley K. Turner and Senator Joseph  F. Vitale to restore funding to cuts made to food assistance for poor and working class families in New Jersey cleared the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee today.

The bill, S-650, would provide that every household in the State that is eligible to receive benefits under the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) would receive a minimum annual payment of $21 in order to qualify the household for a standard utility allowance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) administered by the Division of Family Development in the Department of Human Services.  The standard utility allowance increases the likelihood that the household would qualify for a higher SNAP benefit. 

“Too many of our low-income families in New Jersey are struggling to pay for the bare essentials, like housing, food and utilities,” said Turner (D-Mercer, Hunterdon).  “We need to restore this safety net to help our most vulnerable residents meet their nutritional and living needs. No one should have to choose whether to spend their money to feed their family or heat their home.”

“There are nearly one million people living in poverty in New Jersey, and unfortunately, those numbers continue to rise. This legislation is geared toward helping these individuals get on their feet and allowing them access to the resources they need to not have to sacrifice warm food for a warm home,” said Senator Vitale (D-Middlesex), Senate Health Chairman.  

The bill was originally introduced in 2014 in response to reforms to “Heat and Eat” under the 2014 Agriculture Act.  “Heat and Eat” describes a streamlining practice that 15 states and the District of Columbia use to determine SNAP benefit levels for eligible households. 

Households eligible for SNAP (formerly food stamps) could receive extra SNAP benefits if they could show that they also received assistance paying their heating bills.  As a result, the “Heat and Eat” program was designed to account for the fact that families in states with higher energy costs often find themselves in an untenable position during the winter as they are forced to decide to turn on the heat or keep food on the table. The 2014 reforms disqualified households receiving $20 per year or less from receiving the extra SNAP benefits.

The reform impacted approximately 160,000 low-income New Jersey households; thereby, reducing their SNAP benefits by approximately $90 per month.  The original bill passed both houses of the legislature in 2014, but was vetoed by Governor Christie.  Since 2014, eight states, including New York and Pennsylvania, committed to increase LIHEAP payments to comply with the federal law and ensure that their residents maintain eligibility for “Heat and Eat.” 

According to Moody’s Analytics reports, every dollar in SNAP benefits generates $1.73 in economic activity.  The loss of benefits since 2014 has cost New Jersey about $450 million in economic activity.

“Other states have been able to preserve the extra SNAP benefits to low-income families without using state dollars,” said Senator Turner.  “It makes fiscal sense to restore this program to help our most vulnerable residents and to stimulate our local economy.”

The bill cleared the committee 8-0-1 and next heads to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.

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