New Jersey Can Take Simple Steps to Help Lift its Poorest Children Out of Poverty

TRENTON, NJ: At a State House press conference today, Senate President Sweeney, Assembly Speaker Prieto, Senator Vitale and Assemblywoman Muoio will be joined by policy experts and anti-poverty advocates in laying out some common-sense steps to help lift some of New Jersey’s poorest children out of poverty and calling on New Jersey to reverse the tide of dwindling basic assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, also called Work First NJ.

“As a society, our achievements are judged in large part by how we care for the disadvantaged – and children who live in poverty are by far the most deserving. Childhood poverty is one of the most disturbing conditions that we confront, so it should be one of our most important priorities,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney. “New Jersey already suffers from one of the highest poverty rates in the region and the number of children who are trapped in poverty is tragically high. We have been acting to get federal resources for anti-hunger programs, to prevent homelessness among the disabled and chronically unemployed and we are working for a higher minimum wage because full-time workers should not be living in poverty. We should also assess what can be done to provide more assistance for the families with children that are in need of assistance.”

The press conference coincides with the release of a new report by New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP), which details the devastating economic and social impact of New Jersey’s decision not to increase TANF assistance or eligibility for 29 years. The report shows how the erosion of TANF assistance has harmed the state’s poorest children and suggests modest upfront investments to help reduce the enormous cost of child poverty down the road.

“I thank New Jersey Policy Perspective for their great work on this topic important to all New Jersey taxpayers. As I’ve said as part of the Assembly’s ongoing effort to combat poverty and rebuild the middle-class, fixing this problem isn’t just about social responsibility. It’s also about fiscal responsibility,” said Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto. “It’s appalling that New Jersey has the lowest grant level in the Northeast and that we’ve accepted this as child poverty increases steadily, along with all the costly problems that come along with it. If we’re going to help lift people out of poverty by increasing access to work and job training, then we need to do the right thing and reform and modernize this system. Sitting back and accepting this status quo is not acceptable.”

Too many New Jersey children live in families that are barely hanging on, with incomes less than half of the federal poverty level (about $10,000 for a family of three), and the decline in TANF support is a major cause of this deep child poverty, which has risen by 25 percent even during the economic recovery.

“It is our collective moral obligation to provide what amounts to life saving services to our neighbors who need our help,” said Senator Joseph Vitale, chair of the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee. “It is a simple equation for me to support people who want to care for themselves and their family.”

The other key findings of NJPP’s report:

  • Since 1996, annual funding for TANF assistance has dropped by $358 million, resulting in a total of $5.6 billion in assistance that New Jersey families haven’t received to help them make ends meet.
  • What’s more, the amount of assistance families receive has been stagnant for 29 years, at $424 per month for a family of three. As a result, today TANF assistance is worth less than half what it was worth in 1987.
  • New Jersey’s monthly assistance is about 700 percent less than what the Department of Human Services says is needed to “maintain a decent and healthy standard of living.” This standard, which is updated each year, is currently $2,736 for a family of three.
  • Today, more than 8 in 10 New Jersey children living in poverty do not receive any TANF assistance.

“The statistics in this report are staggering and frankly, shameful,” said Assemblywoman Elizabeth Muoio. “Considering the well documented and costly effects of poverty on a child’s development, and long term educational and health outcomes, increases and reforms to TANF benefits is not only the right thing to do morally, but is a wise and sensible investment in our State’s future.”

“What has become apparent is that we can’t rely solely on a growing economy to solve the issue of poverty in this state,” added Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, chair of the Assembly Human Services Committee. “We learned that the erosion of TANF benefits is one of the main reasons we have nearly a million children living in poverty now. We must maintain compassion for those struggling to overcome the confines of poverty, many of whom are our friends, our neighbors, our loved ones.”

Meanwhile New Jersey’s inaction has made it an outlier.

  • At $424 per month, New Jersey’s maximum assistance for a family of three is the lowest in the Northeast – by far. And 6 of the 7 other Northeastern states have increased their assistance since the last time New Jersey did the same. New York alone has increased assistance three times since 2000, bringing it to almost twice New Jersey’s level.
  • 40 states – including very poor states like West Virginia and Kentucky – offer better TANF support to struggling families than New Jersey when the cost of housing is considered.

“An ever-increasing volume of research tells us just how harmful poverty is for children – not just in the moment of deprivation but throughout their lives,” said Serena Rice, Executive Director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey. “New Jersey has to do a better job of responding to the poverty that is stealing the futures of hundreds of thousands of our children.”

“New Jersey is one of the richest states in the country, and it is appalling that we have allowed thousands of children to live in abject poverty,” added Ann Vardeman, Program Director at New Jersey Citizen Action. “And worse, there are thousands more children living in deep poverty than there were before the Great Recession. All of New Jersey’s children deserve at least a shot at a decent life. We can and must do better than this. New Jersey’s elected leaders must increase TANF assistance and remove the punitive family cap.”

NJPP’s report also includes the first estimate of how much child poverty costs New Jersey – an astonishing $13 billion a year. A modest investment in assistance – NJPP’s proposals would cost less than $50 million a year once fully implemented – would provide an important boost to New Jersey’s children and their families, while saving the state money in the long run. In other words, New Jersey can pay a little now, or pay much more later.

By following New York’s lead and increasing TANF assistance by 30 percent over three years, New Jersey would be able to provide a family of three with a much-needed additional $127 each month. Faced with new research showing that poverty has severe adverse effects on a child’s development, many states are increasing TANF assistance – in fact, 9 states and D.C. did so last year alone.

In addition to this modest but essential boost for families and children, New Jersey should tie TANF assistance to inflation so its value doesn’t erode further. It could do so by setting the level of monthly assistance at a percentage of the state’s existing standard of need, which is adjusted annually for increasing costs of living.

And, last but not least, New Jersey should eliminate the punitive “family cap” law, which denies assistance to any children born to a mother on TANF. This law has resulted in 20,000 children being denied assistance since 1992, creating enormous stress and even greater hardship for their families – with dire health and behavioral consequences for the children. Six states have eliminated their family cap laws since 2002.

“These modest reforms are a small but crucial step forward for hundreds of thousands of New Jersey children and their families,” said Raymond Castro, Senior Policy Analyst at NJPP. “It’s high time we start to address child poverty and help ensure that all New Jersey kids have a fair shot at success – and we’re glad to stand with legislative leaders and torch-bearing advocates to work towards common-sense solutions.”

What’s TANF? TANF provides general assistance to families in need. It was created in 1996 as part of federal changes to cash assistance programs that created a cap on federal funding to states, greatly increased work requirements and placed a 5-year limit on assistance. In New Jersey, the program is also known as WorkFirst NJ.