Nearly 40,000 hungry kids avoid Christie's moral radar | Editorial

By Star-Ledger Editorial Board
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on July 02, 2016

Excerpts from Prieto, Muoio, Advocates at NJPP News Conference Addressing Child Poverty Crisis in NJ

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Since the welfare reform brawl of the 90s, many lawmakers have come to acknowledge that poverty affects children not only at the moment of deprivation, but throughout their lives. Poverty causes poor performance in school, impairs cognitive development, and we all end up paying more when neglected kids become adults.

Currently, 316,000 of New Jersey's kids live under the federal poverty level. Most of them live in working families stuck in low-wage jobs. Beneath them, living in conditions that can only be described as Third World, are the 39,000 children who try to subsist on welfare payments as low as $424 a month for a family of three.

The Legislature aimed to help the most vulnerable of these children with two bills, but Gov. Christie obliterated that idea with a stroke of his pen Thursday.

One of them was designed to increase aid for families receiving welfare assistance – known as TANF, or Temporary Aid to Needy Families. The other bill aimed to eliminate the TANF limit on family size, a cap that prevents eight out of 10 kids born into poverty from receiving a penny of aid.

Christie vetoed the first bill because it would have "substantial budgetary impact." He added that the current monthly benefit of $424 for a family of three is higher than what they give in other states. He left out the part that Gov. Kean established the $424 payment in 1987, when the toll for the Lincoln Tunnel was two bucks.

He also didn't mention that New Jersey's benefit is the 10th lowest in the country - even Oklahoma offers more TANF support than New Jersey. New York has increased assistance three times since 2000, bringing it to almost twice ($789) New Jersey's level. Nine states raised their max just last year.

The governor vetoed the second bill because the cap "serves to equalize treatment of (welfare) recipients and other residents of the State who do not automatically receive higher incomes following the birth of a child."

Actually, the cap punishes children for just being born to mothers already on assistance, because that birth automatically triggers a $102 reduction in benefits. He didn't mention that seven states repealed that punitive measure recently, including California last month.

No doubt, it was a long shot for this budget. The state is busted, Christie is freezing new spending, and it's a tough time for course corrections.

But this governor hands out huge tax breaks to businesses, and if he can't find $14.2 million in a $35 billion budget for kids caught in miserable circumstances, his conscious needs a course correction.

Indeed, given his record for callous indifference toward the poor – on matters of housing, minimum wage, SNAP benefits, and tax credits – he's just being consistent.

But only 23,059 families are eligible for TANF; the threshold for benefits is $7,632 in family income a year, and the state has been closing about 2,000 cases each month the last few years. These bills would have boosted benefits by 30 percent over three years, covered more kids, and provided a family of three with an additional $127 per month in Year 3 – well below our state's assessment that $2,800 is needed for a three-person household.

An alarming TANF report from New Jersey Policy Perspective in February explained why this matters: It found that child poverty costs our state $13 billion in lost productivity, increased crime, and health deficits each year – a grim reminder of the Frederick Douglass precept that it is "easier to build strong children than to repair broken men."

But our governor, on cue, failed to recognize how good economic policy and good social policy are not mutually exclusive. We can't say that we're surprised.

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