Assembly Speaker Launches New Initiative as NJ Poverty Rate Climbs to Record High

“It’s our duty to help the residents of the state of New Jersey,” Prieto said. “These are my friends my neighbors, people I grew up with.”

The announcement yesterday drew immediate praise from anti-poverty advocates in New Jersey and some support from Republican lawmakers, though a key GOP leader said helping middle-class residents afford high property-tax bills should also be a top mission for the Assembly during the new legislative session.

For Prieto, the shift in focus to the poor comes after leading lawmakers made other issues their top priorities during the final weeks of the legislative session that ended on January 12. Those included a push to expand casino gambling into North Jersey and a proposal to get voter approval to require increased state contributions into the public-employee pension system. Leaders also eventually pulled back a last-minute bid to change the way the state draws up its legislative districts every 10 years after it was roundly criticized.

The launching of the anti-poverty initiative also addresses concerns that have been raised by advocates for the poor in recent weeks as Prieto and other Democratic legislative leaders have entertained calls by Gov. Chris Christie and other Republicans to repeal New Jersey’s estate tax. The advocates say the estate tax mostly impacts only the state’s wealthiest residents, and repealing it could take away funds from the budget that right now pay for crucial services for the poor.

Prieto’s announcement also follows what’s been a mixed bag of policy decisions on the issue of poverty that have been made over the past several months by Christie, a second-term Republican now seeking the GOP’s 2016 presidential nomination. Christie worked with Democratic lawmakers last year to increase the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, which benefits New Jersey’s lowest wage earners. But his administration also recently ended a temporary food-stamp program, affecting roughly 11,000 of the state’s poorest residents.

Recent U.S. Census data indicates as many as 1 million New Jerseyans are living in poverty, which is now calculated as $11,170 in annual income for an individual and $24,250 for a family of four.

But Prieto yesterday cited research recently compiled by Legal Services of New Jersey that showed nearly 3 million residents are living in poverty when the state’s high cost of living is factored into the analysis. The group’s figures include roughly 800,000 children.

Prieto stopped short of blaming Christie’s administration for the state’s high rate of poverty, but he also said he’s not sure enough of a focus has been put on helping the poor and middle class in recent years.

“We have an obligation to help,” he said.

A spokesman for Legal Services of New Jersey, which helps the state’s lowest-income residents with non-criminal legal issues, welcomed the speaker’s attention when told of his announcement yesterday.

“Certainly poverty has touched many, many New Jerseyans, as our study shows,” said Harvey Fisher, the organization’s coordinator of communications and media relations. “Hopefully, that trend can be reversed.”

Serena Rice, executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey, said her organization is “thrilled.”

Areas of specific need include rental assistance, food assistance, and cash assistance, three programs that should be getting more investment, she said.

“Poverty is a comprehensive problem, and it requires comprehensive solutions,” Rice said. Assemblyman Jon Bramnick (R-Union) said Republicans in the Assembly “look forward to joining” the discussion on combating poverty. But he said the GOP also wants to see more focus on high property taxes and helping the state’s middle class.

“For too long middle-class homeowners have struggled living in this state,” Bramnick said. “To get New Jersey's property taxes under control we need to make this our top priority this session.”

Four Assembly panels will be holding hearings on the poverty issue next week, all on Wednesday, Prieto said. They will be the Human Services Committee, the Housing and Community Development Committee, the Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee, and the Women and Children Committee. Start times for the meeting have yet to be announced.

The human services panel will focus on existing programs and what other services may be needed to help the poor, while the Housing and Community Development Committee will look at how housing and its high cost are affecting those in poverty, Prieto said.

The transportation panel will focus on ways the state’s transportation network can be used to better connect people with jobs that could get them out of poverty, and the Women and Children panel will focus on issues like job training and pay equity, he said.

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