N.J. households residing in excessive poverty want extra assist from important security internet, advocates say

A vital safety net for New Jersey families living in deep poverty is shrinking even as the number of residents in need continues to grow amid rising costs and an ongoing pandemic, said advocates.

The Garden State’s cash assistance program, Work First New Jersey, is struggling to reach families trapped in a cycle of extreme poverty, according to a coalition of advocates and policy experts that work with the state’s most vulnerable residents.

“Fewer than one in six families living in poverty are supported by Work First New Jersey, and even those who receive assistance do not get enough to make ends meet,” according to Brittany Holom-Trundy, senior policy analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective.

Holom-Trundy joined advocates from several statewide organizations at a press conference earlier this week to urge state lawmakers to pass legislation sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, and Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, D-Hudson.

The bill, S1642/A3324, would bolster Work First New Jersey by removing some restrictions in the program, including work and education requirements, that have prevented many families from getting needed assistance, advocates said.

“In one of the wealthiest states in the wealthiest nation on earth, poverty is a policy choice,” Holom-Trundy said. “We can and must do better.”

Work First New Jersey provides cash assistance to families with annual income at or below 30% of the federal poverty level.

But enrollment has declined 91% since its inception in 1996, the same year the US government created the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, which provides the grants to fund state initiatives like Work First New Jersey.

Federal lawmakers built the program with the goal of lifting families out of poverty through work, but it was influenced by harmful narratives that have permeated US policymaking for more than a century, said Renee Koubiadis, Anti-Poverty Program director at New Jersey Citizen Action.

“It was based on ideas about families in deep poverty that have been around throughout our nation’s history, and it included a number of punitive measures that harm families, especially families of color,” Koubiadis told NJ Advance Media.

The federal government created TANF as part of a collection of sweeping reforms that it said were meant to “end welfare as we know it,” according to a series of reports from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

But a report published in August 2021 highlighted a list of punitive measures in the law, including a lifetime ban on benefits for people with drug felony convictions, a requirement that TANF participants assign their rights to child support to the state and “family caps” that deny additional assistance to families who have another child while receiving benefits.

“This legacy of exclusion and subjugation is a major reason why TANF cash assistance, though a critical support for some, doesn’t meet the needs of most families in poverty, regardless of their race or ethnicity,” the report said.

To make matters tougher, annual federal funding for the program has not changed in 26 years, and inflation has reduced the real value of those dollars by 40%.

“After 26 years of data and research and with the state flush with surplus and federal funding, there is no better time to improve this program,” Koubiadis said. “We know that the need is there, but we see this program shrinking year after year.”

gov. Phil Murphy and state lawmakers have worked to improve the program over the past few years, including an increase of 10% in monthly benefits in 2018 and another 20% increase in 2019.

But advocates say more reforms are needed to address the racial and socio-economic inequities that serve to keep families of all ethnicities in deep poverty.

The bill currently making its way through the state Legislature includes about 20 different improvements to the program, three of which Murphy included in budget language for the current fiscal year.

The measure would extend benefits to families earning up to 50% of the federal poverty level, which amounts to $11,515 per year for a family of three. It also seeks to reduce work requirements from 35 hours per week down to 30 for all families, and families with infants would be required to complete 20 hours each week.

“These changes will make Work First New Jersey more accessible and allow it to better serve our most vulnerable residents,” Ruiz said. “The reforms provide a greater understanding of the realities of working families, offering greater flexibility for families with young children at home and individuals interested in earning a degree.”

The legislation has been referred to the health and human services committees in both chambers of the state legislature.

Residents may apply for Work First New Jersey benefits and other public assistance programs at their county Board of Social Services or by visiting

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Derek Hall may be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @dereknhall.

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