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Bill Provides a Minimal Increase in Home Energy Assistance to Prevent Low-Income Families from Losing Additional Food Stamp Benefits

TRENTON — Legislation sponsored by Senator Shirley K. Turner and Senate Health, Human Services, and Senior Citizens Chair Joseph F. Vitale to restore nutritional benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for poor and working class families in New Jersey was approved by the Senate today.

The bill, S-839, provides 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.

“There are as many reasons for financial hardship as there are people struggling with it, and it is a great challenge for these working poor households to keep their heads above water,” said Senator Turner (D-Mercer/Hunterdon).  “Restoring this law gives them a much needed safety net to keep the lights and heat on and put food on the table.”

“When families and individuals struggle under the strains of poverty, the most meaningful relief we can provide is help with the cost of proper nutrition and utilities,” said Senator Vitale (D-Middlesex). “This bill demonstrates New Jersey’s commitment to our most vulnerable residents as they strive to improve their families’ quality of life.”

The legislation 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 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.

“I’m glad New Jersey is joining other states that have been able to preserve the extra SNAP benefits to low-income families without using state dollars,” said Senator Turner.  “This legislation not only makes fiscal sense but it will also help stimulate our state’s local economies.”

The bill passed with a vote of 34-2 and next heads to the Assembly for further consideration.