MSNBC, December 6, 2007: Advocates press for anti-poverty initiatives for New Jersey poor

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TRENTON, N.J. – Though the challenges of alleviating poverty in costly New Jersey are many, and money is tight, advocates for the poor, homeless and disabled hope to push lawmakers to direct limited state funds to programs that do the most good.

The advocates, known collectively as the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey, paint a grim picture of low-income families fighting to stay solvent in a state where affordable housing is scarce, health insurance is hard to come by, and minimum-wage workers seldom break out of their low-wage rut.

Advocates say even limited state aid can make a big difference to the poor if directed to the right programs, like one that lowers the tax liability.

During its annual conference Wednesday, APN urged its members to pressure lawmakers to fund programs that truly help the poor.

Melville D. Miller, president of Legal Services of New Jersey, points to $37.5 million in rental assistance that he said surely would have been cut from the current state budget but for eleventh-hour lobbying by APN.

“Our only stock in trade at APN is to shine a light on poverty, to bring to light in a transparent way the terrible challenge it is for folks to live in poverty and to then use that information to demand that something be done about it,” he said.

Serena Rice, director of the Poverty Research Institute of Legal Services of New Jersey, said it’s a myth that poor don’t do enough to help themselves.

She said nearly three-quarters of people living in poverty in New Jersey are working; welfare payments have not risen in 20 years; and Medicaid reimbursement rates are so low, it’s tough to find doctors willing to treat the poorest patients.

Department of Human Services Commissioner Jen Velez called the snapshot jarring, but said the data helps state agencies like hers shape its priorities.

“Government’s role is to help people,” she said.

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