Summit Explores Ways To Combat Poverty In N.J.

Suburban (Old Bridge • Sayreville • South Amboy) — Thursday, January 16, 2014

Staff Writer

It's been a half-century since former President Lyndon B. Johnson called upon the nation to build a "Great Society" that eliminated the troubles of the poor.

The "War on Poverty" continues today. With one-fourth of all seniors and one-third of New Jersey residents struggling to meet basic needs, the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey (APN) is issuing a "Call to Invest in the People of New Jersey."

"While we are still fighting it here in New Jersey, we are troubled by the expanded nature of the audience affected by poverty," said APN Chairman Jim Jacob, who is president and CEO of NJ SHARES.

Some 100 people who represent a broad cross-section of community leaders, state and local policy makers, advocacy organizations, educators and faith-based groups convened at the annual APN summit held at the Crowne Plaza in Monroe last month.

Jacob said there were four primary topics discussed: housing, economic empowerment, hunger and moving forward.

"By investing in the people of New Jersey, we are calling on neighbors to help neighbors," he said. "As an outcome of superstorm Sandy, people who never had to face a financial crisis before were thrown into one. The economic downturn of recent years has led to many families and individuals finding themselves in need."

The panel discussions at the summit included Diane Riley of the Community FoodBank of New Jersey; Staci Berger of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey; Milly Silva of United Healthcare Workers East; Dena Mottola Jaborska of New Jersey Citizen Action; and Assemblywoman Gabriela Mosquera (D-Camden and Gloucester), who gave the keynote address.

In regard to housing, APN supports the creation of a consistent and fair state housing plan to invest in housing for working families and homeless households; enactment of legislation to enable foreclosed families to stay in their homes as renters until their home is sold; and creation of a funding stream that would allow nonprofits to rehabilitate foreclosed properties.

APN also supports expanding the state Rental Assistance Program by at least $10 million, with funding coming from the state budget and not taken from other sources crucial to providing affordable housing. The network is also an advocate for increasing funding for legal services to the poor. This way, the more-than-170,000 people facing summary eviction actions annually have legal representation, according to the organization. Since the recession started in 2008, the number of unemployed New Jerseyans has doubled to about 400,000. Although the unemployment rate has declined somewhat, it is due in large part to the growth of lowwage jobs, according to APN.

"New Jersey is a high-cost state to live in," Jacob said.

Joyce Campbell, APN vice chair and associate executive director for External Affairs for Catholic Charities, said households deemed as part of the "middle class" just a few years ago are now facing the same struggles as those once considered poor.

"No matter what the official definition of poverty may be, when it becomes impossible to meet everyday expenses, then people are, in reality, living in poverty," she said.

Jacob said they are asking to increase the minimum wage and adjust for future inflation to move toward the goal of achieving economic self-sufficiency for working families; restoring the earned income tax credit to 25 percent of the federal credit; providing additional funding for outreach in the Affordable Care Act; and increasing the eligibility levels in the WorkFirst New Jersey, which provides temporary assistance for needy families.

More than a million New Jerseyans — almost 400,000 of them children — lack food security, according to APN's latest data.

APN is recommending several steps to combat hunger. These include supporting the expansion of school breakfast programs both fiscally and administratively, and reinstating supplemental funding of the program to provide fiscal incentives for districts to adopt a "breakfast after the bell" approach. The plan also includes expanding access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by applying to the Federal Food and Nutritional Services program for available waivers that increase eligibility to 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

APN will address the process delays being experienced by SNAP applicants at the county level, focusing both on improved business models and hiring staff to process applicants in a timely manner.

Jacob said they will continue discussions as they address the "Call to Invest in the People of New Jersey."

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