After Gov. Phil Murphy vetoed a more ambitious bill last summer, lawmakers have begun advancing a scaled-back plan to revise some requirements for cash assistance benefits through the WorkFirst New Jersey program.

Unlike the bill passed last year but rejected by the governor because of its indeterminate and non-budgeted costs, the new legislation would not increase monthly welfare benefits by the pace of inflation plus one-third of the gap between the benefit amount and half the federal poverty level.

It would require the Department of Human Services to file yearly reports to the Legislature on the real cost of living and actual deprivation starting in 2023, so lawmakers can decide how much to spend on cash assistance benefits.

“Though these reforms are not the full set of improvements that we would like to see, that were passed last year but were shot by a conditional veto, NJPP strongly supports the changes proposed here,” said Brittany Holom-Trundy, a senior policy analyst for New Jersey Policy Perspective.

“These reforms include needed changes to work requirements for parents, increases in child support pass-throughs to better help families, elimination of graduation requirements for 18-year-olds and positive language changes,” she said.

“We believe this is a good first step toward a WorkFirst New Jersey that more effectively tackles childhood poverty and helps support low-income families and builds a stronger future for the state,” Holom-Trundy said.

The bill, S-2956, provides that when determining whether good cause exists to excuse noncompliance with program requirements, the state should consider the recipient’s health, safety, family needs and financial situation.

It reduces the hourly work requirement for all recipients from 40 hours to 30 hours and provides that individuals with children under 6 years of age only need to work 20 hours per week. Under the bill, a parent or relative caring for a child under one year of age may be temporarily excused from any work requirements, which is currently excused for three months after the birth of a child.

“These changes will make WorkFirst New Jersey more accessible and allow it to better serve our most vulnerable residents,” said Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex. “The reforms will bring us in line with federal work requirements, providing a greater understanding of the realities of working families and the difficult decision of whether to pay more for childcare or work fewer hours. I am hopeful, once enacted, this legislation will provide much-needed relief to many in our communities.”

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Holom-Trundy said WorkFirst New Jersey has been especially important during the pandemic.

“And as people have lost employment, income stability and family members in record numbers, these safety nets couldn’t be more important,” Holom-Trundy said.

She urged lawmakers to consider increases in cash assistance and expanded eligibility for immigrant families regardless of their legal status.

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