It’s hard to believe that it has been seven years since the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities and Reconciliation Act of 1996” was enacted. This landmark bill dramatically overhauled the welfare system as we know it. During the boom of the late 90s, a period of extraordinary economic expansion, single mothers left welfare faster than anyone expected. New Jersey’s response to welfare reform had brought about an almost 50 percent reduction in the welfare rolls (92,039 in 1997 to 50,207 in 2000). When some people pointed out that those who “escaped welfare” were not “escaping poverty,” they were ignored. Welfare rolls were down and that was all that mattered. And then came the downturn in the economy.
Numbers released recently by the State Department of Human Services indicated that for the first time since the state enacted welfare reform in 1997, the number of families in the State receiving public assistance grew by 4 percent from July 2002 to July 2003. Approximately 1,660 new families required assistance. New Jersey had begun to feel the effects of a poor economy.
According to a study by Mathematica Policy Research, between July 1997 and December 1998, the steepest employment gains of individuals in the State’s welfare to work program (Work First New Jersey) occurred immediately following the reforms. The researchers concluded that the slower success rates resulted from a weakening economy and the fact that the most skilled people, who were easier to place, found employment soon after the reforms were enacted. The question is what should we do now for those on welfare? Clearly, waiting for the economy to turn around is not a viable alternative. Unfortunately, there is no single “magic bullet,” but there are ways to ease the problem.
First, we should ensure that day care services are available for all those attempting to transition from welfare to work. This is currently not the case. It is not fair to sanction a person who is not meeting Work First New Jersey requirements because of inadequate child care. Likewise, it makes no sense to tell a 60-year-old caring for her grandchildren to find work or be sanctioned. We need to put our children first.
Second, we need to encourage employment opportunities for unemployed workers. I have introduced legislation, S1349, that would prevent taxpayer-funded jobs from being sent overseas where cheap foreign labor is hired to improve company profits. One company that had entered into a contract with the State of New Jersey closed its U.S. based call center and reopened in India. Although the company’s contract with the state was negotiated to provide for the costs of employing the higher wage American workers, the company determined that a bigger profit could be made by putting U.S. workers on the unemployment rolls and hiring cheap foreign labor. Since learning of this underhandedness, I have been working to ensure that no American worker will be put before company profits where public money is concerned. My bill passed unanimously in the Senate, but was blocked in the Assembly due to heavy lobbying by industry officials. Because of my bill, eFunds has since relocated to Camden, New Jersey and has hired and trained individuals coming off welfare and entering the workforce. These are the types of opportunities that will give welfare recipients much needed experience to become self-sufficient and productive workers. It helps no one in New Jersey to use public money to create jobs offshore. It’s bad public policy, and we need to pass S1349 so that we can create more job opportunities at home.
Third, we should further expand the revolving loan pool of the Women’s MicroBusiness Credit Program. This innovative program grew out of legislation I introduced to empower and enable talented, low income women to establish home-based businesses. This program offers loans of up to $5,000 to income-eligible applicants who otherwise face obstacles in securing venture capital for small businesses. This program provides training for women who have business aptitude and solid work ethics, but may lack the capital to turn a good idea for small business into a reality.
Last, but not least, we need to provide transportation to help individuals seeking to make the transition from welfare to work. The cost of transportation is frequently prohibitive for those in low-wage positions. Recently, as a result of a meeting with employers and employees of retail stores along the Route 1 corridor, I contacted NJ Transit to request that the bus schedules be expanded and modified to accommodate various employees who live in Trenton and travel to their jobs in the suburbs. I am pleased to say the bus schedule has been expanded to accommodate employees, employers, and shoppers. Similar efforts need to be made to accommodate, and where necessary, provide transportation assistance for those making the transition from welfare to work.
If we expect welfare recipients to become self sufficient, then we must provide the jobs and support services, such as child care and transportation, that will lead to success.
State Senator Shirley K. Turner represents the 15th District, which includes parts of Mercer County. The senator is Democratic President Pro Tempore of the Senate, Democratic Chair of the Senate Education Committee and is a member of the Senate Transportation Committee.