Advocates Urge Passage of Legislation Expanding and Strengthening Temporary Assistance to Needy Families Program

NJ Senate Majority Leader Ruiz and Assemblywoman McKnight are championing reforms addressing racial and socio-economic inequities that trap many families in deep poverty.

Trenton—Consumer, immigrant and labor advocates gathered today for a press conference calling for the passage of S1642/A3324, which would revise and expand the Work First New Jersey (WFNJ) program, also known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). They were joined New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Tersea M. Ruiz and Assemblywoman Angela V. McKnight, who along with Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake are the bill’s primary sponsors. 

WFNJ/TANF serves as a vital safety net for families who have fallen on hard times. But since its inception the program has been shrinking. WFNJ has seen a 91% decline in enrollment between 1996-2022, while many working families, in particular families of color, have remained trapped in an unending cycle of poverty.

The proposed legislation expands eligibility for the program to ensure badly-needed support reaches New Jersey’s neediest families. It also provides those families with the opportunities and tools they require to lift themselves out of poverty and achieve economic security.

“These changes will make Work First New Jersey more accessible and allow it to better serve our most vulnerable residents,” said Senate Majority Leader Ruiz (D-Essex). “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. I appreciate everyone coming together to highlight this important measure which I am hopeful will provide much-needed relief to many in our communities.”

“By meeting families where they are and delivering much needed support to those who are struggling, we can make a significant difference in the lives of our residents,” said Assemblywoman Angela McKnight (D-Hudson). “The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program offers low-income families the opportunity to become self-sufficient and financially secure by giving them the support they need to overcome socio-economic inequities. I am proud to support legislation that provides New Jersey’s families with the assistance they need to build a better and brighter future.”

“The state’s premier anti-poverty program is not set up to help residents escape the cycle of poverty,” said Brittany Holom-Trundy, Ph.D., Senior Policy Analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP). “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. In one of the wealthiest states in the wealthiest nation on Earth, poverty is a policy choice — we can and must do better. State lawmakers can help families get the support they need by increasing benefit levels to reflect New Jersey’s cost of living, providing residents with meaningful work and educational opportunities, and removing needless barriers to resources.”

“TANF was created under long-standing racist and harmful ideas about families in deep poverty by instituting punitive measures within the program that harm families, especially families of color,’ said Renee Koubiadis Anti-Poverty Program Director at New Jersey Citizen Action. “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,”  “ By increasing the monthly grant to reach families up to 50% of the Federal Poverty Level, improving education and training for decent paying jobs, and many other positive changes, S1642/A3324 would provide sufficient supports to put families on a path to permanent self-sufficiency.”

Governor Murphy and the State Legislature have increased monthly benefits for the program and made other improvements, but more reforms are needed to address the racial and socio-economic inequities that keep families mired in deep poverty. Currently, benefits are available to families living at or below 30 percent of the federal poverty level.  Under S1642/A3324, benefits would be increased up to 50 percent of the federal poverty level, for example, to support a family of three with an annual income of $11,515.

The legislation would also ease the hourly work requirements for families, particularly for families of very young children, while providing parents with the opportunities, skills, and training they need for real economic mobility. These vital reforms will provide a clear path to family-sustaining employment and economic security and prosperity.

“It will take a long time to undo the past harms and sentiments that birthed TANF’s punitive restrictions, but the State can take action right now to disrupt that history,” said Amy Torres, Executive Director for New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. “We are a state where nearly one in four residents is an immigrant, where one in two people is a person of Color, and where over 40% of children live in an immigrant household. Failure to ease restrictions on TANF is the definition of systemic racism — a cruel and intentional policy choice that traps families in cycles of poverty for generations.”

“I’ve worked with TANF recipients for over 22 years and have watched the program fail our families, keeping them in poverty,” said Tyniquah Mullen, Communications Worker of America Local 1084, Secretary and Human Services Specialist at Camden County Board of Social Services. “Workers at welfare agencies want to see our clients succeed and believe that the proposed legislation will bring this much needed change to lead families to permanent self-sufficiency.”

“Legal Services has worked with thousands of families in need of critical services and support from the Work First New Jersey Program,” said Maura Sanders, Chief Counsel for Housing and Benefits for Legal Services of New Jersey. “We have seen the hardships families in crisis face—the unnecessary roadblocks to assistance within the current program, and need for improvement. While the need for most of these changes existed long before the pandemic, the health and economic hardships over the past two years have highlighted the urgent need for many of the program improvements included in the proposed legislation.”

“New Jersey’s community colleges play an important role in providing opportunity to all New Jerseyans so that they can get on, stay on, and complete their paths to post-secondary credentials that lead to economic mobility,” said Jacob Farbman, Ed.D., APR, Executive Director, New Jersey Center for Student Success at the New Jersey Council of County Colleges. “This legislation will allow community college students in need to qualify for public assistance, which will help those students pay for rent, childcare, food, transportation, and other basic needs that will enable them to earn degrees and credentials and obtain family-supporting jobs and careers.”

“People on TANF are being helped, but they have to deal with limitations, with expiration dates, and picking up the scraps where they can,” said Alina McKnight of Newark, a former TANF recipient who also held a job in workforce development assisting TANF recipients. “Without these reforms, people will need to rely on friends and family for help, will continue to get rejected from or miss opportunities. People will continue to settle for much less than they should and New Jersey can do so much better.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities also voiced its support for the legislation, stating that “States can and should move their TANF work programs in an antiracist direction, aimed at respecting parents’ choices, treating families with dignity and respect, and investing in families to help them realize their full potential.”

S1642/A3324 has been referred to the Senate Health, Human Services, and Senior Citizens Committee and the Assembly Human Services Committee. 

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