COMMENTARY: NJ must help people out of poverty

Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Courier-Post

Right before Christmas we learned that more New Jersey residents are now living in poverty than in the past five decades — roughly 2.8 million adults and 800,000 children. Yet, after hearing this news, the Christie administration decided to cut food stamps for 11,000 people.

So while our poverty rate has risen substantially, government assistance has been scaled back dramatically. This is only going to exacerbate the problem, leaving more people hungry at the end of the day.

If we truly want to break the cycle of poverty, then we have to help people help themselves.

What has become apparent is that we can’t rely solely on a growing economy to solve the issue of poverty in this state. Even as our economy gradually rebounds, the poverty rate in New Jersey continues to grow and the income disparity widens. As one of the wealthiest states in the nation, this is totally unacceptable.

The impoverished, the elderly, the disabled — these populations have gradually been treated as a nonpriority and that needs to change.

I applaud Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto for spearheading a new legislative effort to help find solutions to eradicate poverty and grow New Jersey’s middle class. As part of this effort, we recently convened four special committee hearings to help gain insight on the issue and hear, firsthand, from those struggling with poverty.

The stories and statistics we heard before the Assembly Human Services Committee, which I chair, were truly alarming.

The erosion of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits is one of the main reasons we have nearly a million children living in poverty now.

The administration of our Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program ranks near last in the nation in terms of efficiency, meaning more people are being denied food assistance or being forced to jump through bureaucratic hoops to put food on the table for their families.

The emergency housing assistance program is an essential safety net, yet the pilot program that helped provide emergency housing for the disabled expired last year, leaving those who were not enrolled at the time with few other options.

Banning people convicted of certain drug offenses from eligibility for general assistance is another serious concern because many of these people are not violent drug offenders, but ordinary people suffering from addiction and mental illness who are being shut off from much-needed help.

Essentially, what we learned is that when a recession hits, people living in poverty are the first to be impacted and the last to recover. This means we need to do more as a state.

During the hearings, we received a number of policy suggestions worth pursuing. But we also need to pursue additional federal funding to help address our social service needs. And we need to find ways to improve efficiency so that we can maximize services for those who need it most.

Moreover, we must maintain compassion for those struggling to overcome the confines of poverty, many of whom are our friends, our neighbors, our loved ones.

Whether it’s ensuring that people have the opportunity to earn a living wage, or that children are not going to bed hungry at night or that seniors are able to afford to heat their homes in the winter, we need to take a comprehensive approach to tackle the issue of affordability in New Jersey.

My hope is that the hearings we held will serve as the springboard for us to develop substantive policy changes to address the most pressing issues at hand. I look forward to working with my colleagues in the coming weeks to find tangible solutions to these issues.

Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle represents the 37th Legislative District in Bergen County.