On Jan. 11, at the State House Annex in Trenton, the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition called on the Legislature to seek a federal waiver for food assistance in order to prevent thousands of state residents from losing food aid. The meeting was held following a decision by Gov. Chris Christie to allow a three-month time limit on benefits for certain groups to go into effect in New Jersey.
The coalition is a statewide network of more than 100 organizations working to end hunger, including the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
Some 11,000 people in New Jersey are expected to lose their SNAP (supplemental nutrition assistance program, formerly known as food stamps) benefits this year. The change will affect benefits for adults ages 18-50; exceptions are those on disability, raising children, and in job training or working at least 20 hours per week. Whether or not an individual is looking for work is not a criterion.
The time limits, set in a 1996 federal welfare law, were waived during the recession as unemployment soared. But a blanket waiver expired at the end of 2015 with a drop in unemployment. Christie has the option of seeking waivers for the limit in hard-hit areas where unemployment remains high, but he has not done so.
Nationwide, between 500,000 and one million people are expected to lose benefits during 2016 based on the time limits, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan think tank. According to the center, 23 states are either required to implement the rule or are choosing to do so this year; a total of 40 states have the time limit requirement in 2016.
Almost 900,000 New Jerseyans in more than 450,000 households benefit from SNAP. They receive an average of about $116 per person each month.
“People currently on the program will fall off a cliff without the support — they will have no jobs and no benefits,” said Melanie Roth Gorelick, director of the coalition member CRC. “The time limit was put in place back in the 1996 reform with the promise of robust investments in job creation and job training, but those never materialized, and now we are penalizing people who are unemployed and unable to find work.”
At the Jan. 11 press conference, coalition representatives pointed out that the population receiving food aid has already taken several hits, not the least of which came from a 2014 federal farm bill that went into effect in 2015 and cut $8.6 billion in SNAP benefits.
The state’s decision not to apply for a waiver to the time limit on SNAP in those areas of New Jersey that still have high unemployment is “tragic,” Raymond Castro, senior policy analyst at NJ Policy Perspective, said in a release, “because it will mean many New Jerseyans will lose nutritional assistance even if they are making every effort to find a job or could only find part-time work.”
The clock has already started ticking for adults in Hunterdon, Morris, Passaic, Somerset, and Sussex counties and the new policies will begin on Feb. 1 for the rest of the state.
Beyond calling again for seeking federal time-limit waivers, the coalition urges four other actions: provide employment and training or workfare programs to every SNAP participant subject to the time limits; do a better job with outreach, information, and screening efforts to identify those not subject to the time limits; provide detailed information to all communities and anti-hunger organizations so they can better understand the process and prepare for the huge increase in need; and provide monthly reports to the Legislature and the public detailing the ramifications of this decision.
Despite the efforts, which the CRC has joined, Roth Gorelick is not optimistic given the position of the Christie administration. “At this point we don’t expect Gov. Christie to make any changes on SNAP so we are working with our synagogues who are joining us in our anti-hunger advocacy and making this a number one issue in the upcoming gubernatorial elections,” she said.