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Sens. Sweeney, Pou, Gordon & Vitale Join Anti-Hunger Advocates

They Address Funding Losses Affecting NJ Food Assistance Programs

(L to R): Senators Gordon, Vitale, Pou and Sweeney participate in a roundtable discussion with advocates on funding losses affecting New Jersey food assistance programs.*Photo Submitted

(L to R): Senators Gordon, Vitale, Pou and Sweeney participate in a roundtable discussion with advocates on funding losses affecting New Jersey food assistance programs.*Photo Submitted

Press Release 1/29/16

TRENTON – Senate President Steve Sweeney, Senator Nellie Pou, Senator Bob Gordon and Senator Joseph Vitale joined anti-poverty and anti-hunger groups, local elected officials and New Jersey residents in a roundtable discussion today at Eva’s Village in Paterson on recent funding losses affecting important programs that serve the state’s most vulnerable residents, including the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the “Heat and Eat” Program.

“The decision to leave federal dollars on the table that could otherwise be used to help our state’s most vulnerable residents is simply wrong,” said Senator Sweeney. ”This is not enabling policy; it is hurting those who turn to the safety net programs that are in place to lend a helping hand to those who are trying to survive in tough times.”

Since 2008, states have been able to get waivers from the federal government on time limits for the requirement that able-bodied adults without dependents work at least 20 hours a week to enroll in SNAP. The time limit means that adults aged between 18 – 50 years who are considered able to work can only receive SNAP benefits for three months out of a 36-month period unless they work at least 20 hours a week, every week, or participate in an approved employment and training program.

Those time limit waivers have been rescinded in states with unemployment levels below 10 percent, including New Jersey. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, New Jersey’s unemployment rate as of November 2015 is 5.3 percent.  But the federal waivers are still available in areas where unemployment is high and where jobs are scarce.

On December 31, 2015, Governor Christie announced that he would not be applying for county and municipal waivers to a time limit on SNAP benefits for able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWD) in areas of high unemployment, or areas where there is evidence of insufficient jobs pursuant to federal regulations. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 42 cities, counties and townships in New Jersey qualify as “Labor Surplus Areas,” or areas where there are too many job seekers for the number of jobs available, in 2016.

“While the state’s economy as a whole has improved, some cities, towns and counties have lagged behind, and such decisions only make the poor poorer,” said Senator Pou. “The individuals receiving SNAP benefits that are at risk of losing their benefits are among the state’s residents that are most in need of the help. We can’t turn our backs on them because they are struggling to survive in a lagging economy.”

The federal waivers of the SNAP employment and training requirement would have allowed for some of New Jersey’s most vulnerable residents to continue receiving food assistance benefits independent of their employment status. Media reports have stated that about 11,000 New Jersey residents will lose their food assistance as a result of the Governor’s decision, but advocates suspect that number is underestimated.

“There is a terribly inaccurate misconception that these individuals are unwilling to work. The reality is that they are willing to work and seeking employment but are caught in the web of a slow economy where jobs are scarce,” said Senator Vitale. “They live in the most distressed areas of the state where unemployment rates are high because the number of jobseekers outnumbers jobs. The opportunities for employment simply don’t exist, and we can’t blame those receiving the benefit for that.”

As a result of the administration’s unwillingness to apply for the waivers, which have been consistently applied for and received since 1997, those who were receiving food assistance must meet the work employments within three months in order to keep receiving the benefit. Anyone who is not employed for at least 20 hours a week will automatically lose this safety net benefit.

“It would simply be foolish to think that by not applying for these waivers, we are forcing the unemployed to find work within the three-month time limit,” said Senator Gordon. “New Jersey has the highest long-term unemployment rate in the country. What the Governor has essentially done is sentenced these individuals to long-term poverty and an inability to meet their basic nutritional needs.”

Currently, the maximum gross monthly income to qualify for SNAP for a single person with no dependent children in New Jersey is $1,815, which is 185 percent of the federal poverty level. The top monthly benefit under the program is $194 a month.

Recognizing that the population of residents eligible for SNAP benefits is likely to also be in need of assistance in paying their heating bills, the federal “Heat and Eat” program was designed to alleviate the difficulty for families in states with higher energy costs in being forced to choose during winter months between turning the heat on or keeping food on the table. Through the “Heat and Eat” program, those who receive at least $21 in energy assistance become eligible for additional SNAP benefits.

New Jersey ended its “Heat and Eat” coordination of SNAP and energy assistance payments in 2014, putting 159,000 low-income SNAP households at risk of losing approximately $90.00 per month in federal SNAP food benefits. The program is entirely federally-funded, and the loss of the “Heat and Eat” option further burdens the state’s already struggling efforts to administer the SNAP within federal rules and get eligible people vital benefits timely.

“It was wrong to cut the ‘Heat and Eat’ program and it’s wrong to refuse to seek federal waivers for New Jersey’s most distressed cities, towns, and counties,” said Adele LaTourette, Director of New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition, who participated in the roundtable discussion. “I applaud the efforts of the Senators for having the conversation about this very real problem, and I urge them to continue fighting for those who are most at-risk in our state. We must take a hard look at the far-reaching impact of hunger across New Jersey to be able to collectively find solutions.”

N Other participants at the roundtable discussion included: Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, Passaic County Freeholder Director Theodore Best, Jr.; Rev. Pat Bruger, Executive Director of CUMAC/ECHO which runs the largest food pantry in Paterson; Marie Reger, Executive Director of Eva’s Village, the host venue; Serena Rice, Executive Director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey; and several New Jersey residents who receive SNAP benefits, are considered ABAWD and are impacted by the Governor’s actions.

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