Welform 'Reform' Legislation

The State Senate and Assembly last fall introduced a package of welfare reform legislation entitled “Work First New Jersey” (Senate Bills 35, 36, 37, 38/Assembly Bills 12, 13, 14, 15). The bills represent New Jersey's effort to implement the federal welfare “reform” enacted last year and are similar to legislation introduced in other states.

The Senate Human Services Committee and Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee held joint hearings on November 14 and 18, 1996. Legal Director Lenora M. Lapidus submitted written testimony in opposition to the package of legislation. Of the many harmful and unconstitutional provisions, we directed our comments to five issues.

First, we objected to the arbitrary time limits. The bills set a 5-year cumulative lifetime limit for receipt of public assistance and limit receipt of Emergency Assistance to 12 months, with certain exceptions. We argued that if a person is otherwise complying with requirements of the public assistance program, there is no reason to deny further benefits based on the arbitrary decision that no one in New Jersey could be in dire circumstances for more than 60 months during his or her lifetime or require Emergency Assistance for more than 12 months. These time limits will leave many families at grave risk of hunger and homelessness.

Second, we opposed the provision that continues New Jersey's child exclusion rules, which deny additional benefits for a child born while the family is receiving benefits. We argued that the child exclusion unconstitutionally penalizes children for the behavior of their parents and unlawfully distinguishes between poor children based solely on the timing of their birth. In addition, this provision violates the state constitutional right to privacy, by coercing women in their childbearing decisions. The clear purpose of the child exclusion is to deter women who are receiving cash assistance from conceiving and bearing an additional child.

Third, we criticized the provision that limits the amount of benefits payable to individuals who have resided in New Jersey for less than one year to the level of benefits they would have received in their prior state of residence. This provision is clearly intended to deter in-state migration and impermissibly discriminates against newer residents. Two families with identical needs, identical resources, and identical numbers of hungry mouths to feed are granted different amounts of assistance solely because one of them has recently moved across state lines. The fundamental right of interstate travel forbids a state from treating new residents differently from longer-term residents in order to discourage their entry or to penalize them for their entry if they cross state lines. The differential treatment also violates the equal protection clause because no rational basis supports this distinction. Finally, this provision also violates the Privileges and Immunities Clause of Article IV of the Constitution.

Fourth, we contested the denial of benefits to legal aliens. We believe that denying benefits to legal immigrants is unconstitutional and serves no public policy goal. The denial of benefits to legal aliens is based on the faulty premise that immigrants are a net drain on the public fisc. Study after study has shown the reverse to be true. For example, Business Week recently concluded that, nationally, immigrants pay $90 billion in taxes each year and receive only $5 billion worth of benefits. Legal immigrants come to the United States, and to New Jersey, to work and to join close family members. There is no evidence that they come to take advantage of the welfare system. Excluding them from the social safety net, if they fall on hard times, serves no purpose other than to deepen their destitution. Legal immigrants pay the taxes that fund the safety net, just like everyone else, and no legitimate justification exists to deprive them of their right to equal protection.

And fifth, we opposed denial of benefits to persons convicted of a felony drug offense. We believe that this policy is unduly punitive and counterproductive. A past conviction is not a meaningful predictor of current conduct. The permanent bar thus irrationally excludes persons who are currently in need of assistance solely due to a past mistake. In view of the harsh criminal penalties attached to drug crimes, it is unrealistic to expect that this additional sanction will operate as a meaningful deterrent. Rather, it will simply leave a population that is often in great need of public assistance to make a positive life change unable to obtain such assistance. On December 5, 1996, Legal Director Lapidus testified before the Assembly Policy and Regulatory Oversight Committee in opposition to the welfare reform package.

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