Bill Was Prompted by News that 11,000 Residents Were Cut Off from Assistance with Little Warning

By a vote of 72-3, the General Assembly on Thursday granted final legislative approval to a bill sponsored by Assembly Democrats Benjie Wimberly, Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Shavonda Sumter to help ensure food assistance benefits continue when needed for New Jersey residents struggling to find work.

The legislature initially sent the bill to Christie in February and he conditionally vetoed it in April, sending back recommendations that have now been signed off on by both houses and will head back to his desk.

Federal regulations provide that, in general, able-bodied adults without dependents are subject to a time limit for SNAP benefits of three months in a 36-month period unless they work at least 20 hours per week. However, states are permitted to seek a waiver of the three-month time limit if the unemployment rate in the state or an area of the state is greater than 10 percent, or if there is a lack of sufficient jobs to provide employment.  

"The state had applied for, and received, numerous waivers from 2009 to 2015 for counties who were struggling with unemployment rates higher than the statewide average," said Wimberly (D-Bergen/Passaic). "We likely would have been approved again for those counties that are still struggling, but instead the administration decided not to apply and now 11,000 residents are forced to go without food assistance. This shouldn't happen again."

Prior to the new year, there were 900,000 individuals in New Jersey receiving SNAP benefits, including 60,000 who are able-bodied and childless. Under SNAP guidelines, those 60,000 individuals must work or be enrolled in a training program to qualify for benefits and 11,000 were not meeting that requirement.

According to news reports, the Christie administration notified 15 counties last summer that it intended to apply for waivers but then reportedly notified agencies on New Year's Eve that benefits would be ending for those 11,000 residents because the state declined to submit the waiver requests, allowing their waivers to expire effective January 1, 2016.  

"Many economically struggling counties and municipalities in New Jersey likely could have been approved for another waiver had the administration followed through with their original promise to apply for it," said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen). "This bill will revamp the entire process so that thousands of people are not left without a safety net with little warning."

"Unfortunately, we still have a significant number of counties still struggling to rebound from the recession, making it harder for residents to find work," said Sumter (D-Bergen/Passaic). For the long-term unemployed, SNAP benefits can make the difference between whether they go to bed hungry at night or not. This bill will ensure that waiver requests are submitted when warranted so this doesn't happen."

The bill (S-993/A-2777) would require the Commissioner of Human Services to conduct a review of available data on labor and employment in the state to determine whether to submit a request for a waiver of the benefit time limit for able-bodied adults without dependents participating in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as food stamps).  

Then based on the review of the availability of opportunities to fulfill the federal work requirement for participation in SNAP, the commissioner would determine whether to submit a request for a waiver. Initially, the bill automatically required the Commissioner to submit a waiver.

The bill would also require the commissioner to submit a report at least once, annually, for three years to the Governor and Legislature on: 

1) the number of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participants in each county who are subject to the benefit time limit for able bodied adults without dependents; 
2) the number of participants whose benefits are in danger of being terminated within the next month due to the benefits time limit; and 
3) the number of participants whose benefits were terminated in the past month as a result of the benefit time limit.  

The report would also describe the review of labor and employment data and any actions taken by the commissioner related to requesting a waiver of the time limit. If any area of the state is not covered by a requested waiver, the report would describe the commissioner's reasons for not submitting a waiver request.

The bill would take effect six months after enactment.