New Jersey Star-Ledger, February 20, 2008: Legal Services study suggests anti-poverty efforts are failing

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Star-Ledger Staff

New Jersey may have the second-largest population of millionaires in the country, but the poverty rate hasn’t budged in three years — a signal that anti-poverty programs aren’t working, according to a report released yesterday by Legal Services of New Jersey.

Between 2004 and 2006, 9 percent of the state’s 8.5 million citizens lived below the federal definition of poverty, earning no more than $16,000 a year for a family of three. Children fared even worse, making up nearly 12 percent of the poverty class. The state also has the 13th-highest foreclosure rate in the nation, according to the report, “Poverty Benchmarks 2008.”

“What is discouraging is that poverty rates have remained stagnant at all levels of poverty, suggesting that policies aimed at the low-income populations have failed to substantially reduce income inadequacy,” according to the report.

Some programs are “important investments” but have limited im pact. They include the Department of Children and Families’ “Family Success Centers” and “Differential Response,” both of which link families to community-based social services. The programs, which collectively cost $10.4 million, do not “increase the available funding to actually address … issues a family may be experiencing,” according to the report.

“I don’t want to underplay the progress. Some programs are mak ing a difference,” said Serena Rice, managing director for Legal Services’ Poverty Research Institute, citing the state’s rental assistance program that benefits up to 5,000 tenants. “But there are a lot of concerning trends, and we need to be taking more action as a state for our low-income residents,” she said.

Legal Services recommended a half-dozen strategies, three of which wouldn’t add any cost to the state budget’s bottom line.

They include raising the minimum wage from $7.15 to $8.25 an hour, and enacting a paid family leave program that would provide up to six weeks of pay, funded by a tax deducted from a worker’s pay, Rice said.

Assemblywoman Bonnie Wat son-Coleman (D-Mercer) has spon sored a bill (A1774) that would raise the minimum wage, although it has yet to be heard in committee. Senate Majority Leader Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) sponsored the family leave bill (S687), which passed a committee last month but faces stiff opposition from business leaders.

The Department of Human Services could make the food stamps and free school breakfast programs more accessible at no cost to the state because they are supported solely by federal money, Rice said.

More people would apply for food stamps if the state authorized county welfare offices to extend evening office hours and permitted people to apply without having to submit as much proof of their in come, said Adele LaTourette, di rector of the Statewide Food Net work Center for Food Action. If school superintendents and principals agreed that breakfast would be served in the classroom after attendance is taken, more kids would participate. Newark boasts a 92 percent participation rate because its schools provide breakfast “after the morning bell.”

New Jersey ranks 48th in the nation for its participation in the school breakfast program, according to the report.

“What’s so frustrating is we are leaving behind federal funding” — $17 million alone in money to bolster the school breakfast program, LaTourette said.

Legal Services also called on state leaders to raise the monthly welfare grant, which hasn’t been increased in 21 years, enact universal health care and expand affordable housing programs in suburban areas.

A parent with two children must work or attend a job preparation program in order to qualify for the monthly welfare check of $424.

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