Policy change in New Jersey is resulting in fewer welfare recipients

Posted: March 22, 2012

The number of general-assistance welfare recipients in New Jersey has plummeted, with thousands of applicants being denied enrollment, in part because of a controversial new policy of the Christie administration.

The July 1 change, which already has saved the state money, established a prerequisite to qualify for aid: attend job training or offer proof of an active employment search, for four consecutive weeks.

The administration says the rule is intended to improve applicants' odds of finding work, which will keep the general-assistance rolls down.

But advocates for the poor say New Jersey has created an obstacle to enrollment that is insurmountable for many of the most vulnerable and that, in some cases, could cost the state more.

"People without resources are an easy target for politicians," said Pat McKernan, chief operating officer of Volunteers of America Delaware Valley, which runs homeless shelters and provides other services to the poor.

"Keeping cash out of the hands of people who really need it is, I think, a violation of the social contract," she said. "People are hurting enough."

Monthly payments in the program, known as WorkFirst NJ, are between $140 and $210 - an amount unchanged since 1986 - and can be collected for a lifetime maximum of 60 months.

The lower amount goes to single adults who are "employable" who do not have dependent children. (State general assistance to "unemployable" adults - for example, those with a severe disability - has different criteria.)

Taking part in a work program has long been required of employable applicants, and failure to comply resulted in monetary sanctions. But until last year, applicants got cash to tide them over during the qualifying period, when many are in crisis. Now payment is retroactive upon completion of the four weeks.

Under one of several proposed changes to the welfare system announced this month, the retroactive benefit could be eliminated to save the state about $1.1 million, the Department of Human Services says.

Those who work with the indigent say many desperate enough to apply for general assistance struggle with extreme poverty, mental disorders, addiction, criminal histories, and lack of transportation, which complicate their ability to meet the requirement. If they mess up, they have to begin again, which delays the chance of receiving aid by at least a month.

The wait could grow: The state also is considering instituting a monthlong ineligibility period before applicants can retry to qualify.

For someone who lives on the margin, the lack of an immediate payment increases the risk of eviction, those involved in social services say. Housing such people in shelters - the state pays $50 per room-night, according to Volunteers of America - costs far more, they say.

The state says other programs are available in such cases. "If an applicant has an imminent homelessness issue, it is always a priority to address that need first," said Nicole Brossoie, state Human Services spokeswoman.

Advocates for the poor challenge this statement, saying county facilities that implement WorkFirst NJ do not always screen applicants appropriately. And they note that failure to qualify for general assistance delays other help, such as rental assistance and medical coverage.

The poor "don't know what their rights are" in the complex system, said Lee Ginsburg, managing attorney at the Camden office of Legal Services of New Jersey.

Since the rule change last summer, New Jersey's welfare rolls have shrunk dramatically: In January, the number of employable assistance recipients was down 17.1 percent compared with the same month in 2011.

This fiscal year, the state estimates it will spend $60 million on general assistance for the employable, $9 million less than last year. Only $1 million of the saving can be attributed to the new rule, according to Brossoie.

Gov. Christie's proposed budget for the coming fiscal year anticipates spending even less, based on a further decline in enrollment. Even then, the state says, it would be among the most generous programs in the country.

As of July, required activities for applicants have included such things as job training and English-language or GED classes, according to the state. Those not receiving instruction must prove they have spent 30 hours a week seeking employment, said Kerri Gatling, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

Since the change, more than 5,000 attempts to enroll have been denied due to applicants' failure to meet the work rule, according to the state.

The prerequisite is just one "contributor" to the shrinking welfare rolls, Brossoie said, describing the reduction as a win-win for applicants and taxpayers.

"The sooner an applicant becomes involved in a work-related activity, the sooner he will find employment and no longer require support," she said in an e-mail.

But those who work with the poor suspect the general-assistance requirement has caused some of the most fragile poor to be rejected or simply not try for the benefit. The decline in general assistance is inconsistent with other poverty measures, they say, pointing out that the number of food-stamp recipients in the state increased 11.5 percent in the 12 months that ended in January.

LeAnne Gurganus, 19, who lives at a Glassboro women's and family shelter run by the Volunteers of America, was among those whose attempts to qualify failed. For three weeks in the fall, she took two buses to the county One-Stop Career Center and handed in paperwork indicating she had looked for work.

But she never made her final weekly visit, and counselors at the Volunteers of America who confirmed her story said the reason highlighted a problem with the new system.

Gurganus suffers from multiple mental illnesses and had a breakdown that put her in Hampton Behavioral Health Center in Burlington County for 33 days. She was terminated from the program and did not receive her money.

"Trying to put hurdles in front of folks who are already struggling seems punitive, leaving people who are already vulnerable more vulnerable," said McKernan, who has signed a letter asking Christie to rescind the requirement.

Gurganus, a 2011 Audubon High graduate who has worked in retail, started the process again in December and managed to finish.

"It's a waste of time and energy, but it's what you have to do," said Gurganus, who received a retroactive one month's payment.

Ginsburg, of Legal Services, doesn't buy the state's contention that the revision was to get applicants looking for work or acquiring skills to cut their time on assistance.

He thinks it was meant to keep more of them from ever qualifying.

"The primary (if not the sole) purpose was to save money for the state by keeping more people off" welfare, he wrote in an e-mail.

There were 44,248 recipients in January, 31,039 of them employable. The numbers have decreased every month since August.

Brossoie said the decline may also be attributed to a change at the federal level. The Social Security Administration has quickened its application-review process for federal aid to some recipients. Advocates for the poor say the expedited process affects few people and cannot account for the sharp drop in welfare recipients.

They also cite a June letter from the Department of Human Services to county welfare agencies that indicated the change in qualifying for assistance was due to state budget cuts.

Gurganus said she received help with her learning disability in the required program. The process was ultimately "helpful," she said.

But without food stamps and government-funded shelter, she said, she does not know how she would have managed in the months it took.

The general assistance she now receives goes toward expenses unrelated to food or lodging: buses to the career center and potential employers, toiletries, and savings for a security deposit for an apartment. Soon, some will be taken by the county and put toward her shelter stay.

Without that extra bit of cash, the Volunteers of America says, the poorest cannot make it out of shelters and into jobs and homes.

In December, as Gurganus went through her second four-week qualifying process, she was optimistic: "Eventually, I will get hired somewhere."

As of last week, she was still living at the Volunteers of America shelter and was still unemployed.

Contact Matt Katz at 609-217-8355, mkatz@phillynews.com, or follow @mattkatz00 on Twitter. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles," at www.philly.com/christiechronicles

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