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Vitale, Rice Bills to Increase ‘Work First’ Benefits Advance

TRENTON – Two bills sponsored by Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee Chair Joseph F. Vitale and Senator Ronald L. Rice that would increase cash benefits and repeal “family caps” were approved today by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.

The first bill, S-489, would increase the maximum cash assistance benefit for families participating in the Work First New Jersey Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (WFNJ/TANF) program.

“The Work First New Jersey program extends a helping hand to families that have fallen on rough times.  During what can be incredibly challenging periods of under- or unemployment, families face crushing financial challenges,” said Senator Vitale (D-Middlesex).   “This program offers cash and other benefits to help the working poor keep their family together and care for their children.  Our bill raises their monthly cash allotment and edges it closer to a reasonable amount for making ends meet.”

“In 1987, New Jersey established a monthly $424 maximum Work First benefit for a family of three.  I find it shameful that our state hasn’t changed that number since — and now, 31 years later, that $424 is worth a mere $200.50 in today’s economy,” said Senator Rice (D-Essex).  “It’s even worse when you consider that 90 percent of our recipients are women and that only 80 percent of children living in deep poverty actually receive any assistance.  This bill is a step in the right direction to alleviate the hardships of families doing their best to attain some measure of financial security.”

The bill would increase this amount to $466 in Fiscal Year (FY) 2018, $509 in FY 2019, and $551 in FY 2020.  For FY 2020 and each year thereafter, the maximum benefit would be annually adjusted according to the cost of living adjustment applied under the federal Social Security program.

The second bill, S-490, would repeal parts of the Work First New Jersey Act which prohibit a household from gaining additional cash assistance benefits as the result of the birth of a child, commonly known as “family caps” and would take effect immediately.

The amount of monthly cash assistance provided to the household by the program is based on the household’s size.  Current law prevents the amount of the grant from increasing as the result of the birth of a child unless the child is born fewer than 10 months after applying for benefits or the birth of the child is a result of rape or incest.  It also has certain exceptions to the family cap for families with a working parent and for children born to minors.  This bill would eliminate the family cap in order to extend assistance to more families in need.

“The family cap has denied assistance to over 20,000 children since its inception in 1992. Its original goal – to promote individual responsibility – is already achieved by extensive work requirements, a provision for termination upon noncompliance with program rules and a five-year lifetime limit on the assistance,” said Senator Vitale.  “It seems inhumane to deny funds to these working poor families when they need it the most with a new mouth to feed.”

“The Work First New Jersey Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program was established as a multi-pronged means to stabilize poor families by enabling employment and wages and encouraging two-parent households and smaller families.  The family cap has outlived its usefulness and it’s time to do away with that restriction,” said Senator Rice.  “The fact is that families grow, and we need to support them.”

Both bills are supported by The Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey, New Jersey Policy Perspective, Legal Services of New Jersey, Advocates for Children of New Jersey, New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness, New Jersey Tenants Organization, Drug Policy Alliance of New Jersey, Lutheran Episcopal Advocacy Ministry of New Jersey, Anti-Hunger Coalition, The New Jersey Catholic Conference, and the National Association of Social Workers New Jersey Chapter.

Last June, identical bills were passed by the Senate but given an absolute veto by Governor Christie. Today, S-489 and S-490 were passed 13-0 and 8-5, respectively.  They now advance to the full Senate for further consideration.