New Jersey Star-Ledger, December 6, 2007: Poverty foes gather to map successes, unreached goals

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Star-Ledger Staff

Poverty remains a stubborn problem in this wealthy state be cause some government programs are too cash-starved or poorly executed to make a difference, anti- poverty advocates said yesterday.

Gearing up for the annual fight to make low-income people a priority in next year’s state budget, members of the Anti-Poverty Net work outlined their goals: Expanding FamilyCare, the state’s low-cost health care program, and the state’s rental assistance program, and raising the monthly welfare grant, which has remained flat since 1987.

As state officials gear up to close an estimated $3 billion budget deficit next year, advocates said they’ll be ready to make their case with new statistics demonstrating that poverty is growing, which government-funded programs work and why some don’t.

“We hear so much about what cannot be done in the state budget,” Melville D. Miller, executive director of Legal Services of New Jersey, and a network member. He said that too often, elected officials make budget decisions by pitting anti-poverty programs against each other or against other social programs.

“We can’t permit New Jersey state government to frame the debate that way,” Miller said. “Society should not accept cuts which balance the state budget on the backs of low-income people.”

One in five New Jersey residents last year lived in “true poverty” — twice the federal government’s meager poverty rate, or an annual income of less than $32,158 for a family of three, according to Serena Rice, managing director of Legal Services’ Poverty Research Institute.

The state created a rental assistance program and dedicated $37.5 million this budget year, which shares the cost of rent with about 3,000 families, state Department of Community Affairs spokesman Chris Donnelly said. But advo cates have said the need is closer to 90,000 affordable housing units. “We have not even reached the down payment level,” Miller said.

Welfare would seem to be the program most directly aimed at people in severe poverty, yet the monthly grants have not risen in 20 years, Miller said. That means a family of three, then and now, received $424 a month, and a childless adult received $140 a month.

Human Services Commissioner Jennifer Velez, who addressed the conference, said she shares many of the same priorities. She said the state’s fiscal health is isn’t the only obstacle.

Velez said the “not in my backyard” attitude stymies efforts to expand affordable housing and rental assistance programs. “With all the money in the world, we couldn’t go into some communities,” Velez said.

Expanding the state children’s health insurance program — or FamilyCare, as it’s known in New Jersey — would require a dramatic departure from President Bush’s position that the program ought to serve only the poorest of children and none of their parents.

Yesterday’s annual “state of the state” anti-poverty conference, held at the War Memorial in Tren ton, was also an exercise in energiz ing the advocates by reminding them of their past accomplishments.

The network, composed of 300 religious, educational and social service organizations, successfully lobbied to expand the state Earned Income Tax Credit that allowed 300,000 more families to qualify, said the Rev. Bruce Davidson, di rector of the Lutheran Office of Governmental Ministry.

Over the last two years, the Cor zine administration has added $4 million for food banks, Davidson said. “When you are starting from zero, this is something to celebrate.”

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