Plans to boost benefits for NJ’s vulnerable get another look
Another batch of bills vetoed under Gov. Chris Christie but getting new life under Gov. Phil Murphy took another step through the Legislature this week, including one enabling people needing food assistance to qualify for an extra $90 of help each month.
That bill and two others that would loosen caps on how much emergency assistance a person can receive through a program that helps cover their housing expenses were advanced by the Senate health committee.
Under what’s called the "heat and eat" bill, New Jersey would provide $21 a year in energy assistance to everybody who gets nutrition assistance. That would make them eligible for extra food stamp benefits, which they received before 2015 if they got $1 in energy assistance.
“Supplemental aid is not about gluttony. It’s about survival,” said Sen. Shirley Turner, D-Mercer.
Adele LaTourette, director of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition, said other states have made the change and that New Jerseyans have missed out on $450 million in federal funds because the state hasn’t yet done it.
“One of the critical things that we really need to look at is how we maximize feeding people who are hungry in New Jersey while at the same time maximizing federal dollars coming into the state,” LaTourette said.
Emergency assistance benefits help prevent homelessness by helping pay for necessities such as rent, home heating fuel and utility security deposits and debts.
Since 1997, it has been limited to 12 months, with up to six months extra in limited cases of extreme hardship, said Steven Leder, a senior attorney with the Community Health Law Project, who says “it’s basic fairness” to change that.
“Could you imagine if you had an emergency room, and they said, ‘Well, I’m sorry, you went to the emergency room three times already so you can’t have any more times,’ no matter what your situation is?” Leder said.
“You could have needed five, 10, 15 years ago, used up your cap of emergency assistance, and now you come in homeless again and you’re not eligible,” Leder said.
If the change becomes law, the limit on emergency assistance would cover only the past seven years, not a lifetime.
A related proposal would make New Jerseyans with permanent disabilities and their caretakers eligible for permanent emergency housing assistance, not ending after 12 to 18 months. That is already lifted for the 60-month limit on general welfare assistance benefits.
“We’ve seen so many families and individuals who’ve been without assistance or who’ve been left homeless because of this hard time limit as it exists right now,” said Maura Sanders, chief section counsel for Legal Services of New Jersey.
A pilot program providing extended emergency assistance benefits ended in 2015, leaving over 3,000 people without rental assistance.
It’s not clear how many people would benefit from the changes. There are typically more than 10,000 cases active in an average month, with grants ranging from $400 to $1,000.