Cuts to Legal Services will hurt needy, poor in NJ

By Michael Hill

Teresa Mack of Mercer County turned to Legal Services to get her car back and off the auction block after an unnamed, unscrupulous dealer had repossessed it.

“And when Dan Rubin went over all the papers he realized I had paid for the car already, so why’d they take my car?” she asked.

Mack says Legal Services also advised her of what to tell a judge after a shady Newark landlord decided not to follow the rules.

“She gave me all the advice and she helped me. And saved me from being homeless,” Mack said.

Mack told her stories at this Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey news conference to cite examples of how cuts to Legal Services and other assistance to the poor could send the needy deeper in to desperation and despair.

“So for them to cut the budget and not be able to help people that need help, I just can’t believe it,” Mack said.

Lawmakers plan to give Legal Services an additional $5 million last year was met a line-item veto.

“I’m sure we will do the right thing for Legal Services, getting them at minimum back those 5,” said Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto.

Lawmakers and advocates also took aim at New Jersey’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. It’s been the same level — $424 — since Ronald Reagan was president in 1987.

“That is the same year my family was leaving welfare in Camden County. It wasn’t enough to survive on then and I honestly don’t know families on Work First New Jersey are able to survive on the same benefit amount that is now worth half of what it was in 1987,” said Renee Koubiadis, executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of NJ.

The network cited a United Way study showing the depth of the need.

“Thirty-seven percent of New Jerseyans are struggling to get by in our high-cost state when you consider those below the federal poverty level and those who are considered working poor,” Koubiadis said.

“I can relate. I walked in those shoes when a single mother raised me, so I know how those programs are a helping hand. And that is, in my opinion, heartless,” said Preito.

New Jersey Policy Perspective say New Jersey has the seventh lowest TANF in the nation.

“The other thing that’s so concerning about this is the most recent research has shown conclusively the effects of poverty on brain development. Those effects can last a lifetime for these children, and we know in New Jersey child poverty costs the state about $13 billion a year in increased crime, in worse health outcomes and reduced productivity. So we either pay now, or we pay much more later,” said New Jersey Policy Perspective Director of Health Policy Raymond Castro.

Legislative leaders say they will follow New Jersey Policy Perspective’s recommendations again after they were vetoed last year. They include raising TANF 10 percent for three years and then tying it to inflation and expanding it to include more children.

“This is a wealthy state. Poverty should not be going up, it should be going the other direction. The economy is getting better, so when you see poverty continue to increase as the economy is improving, something’s wrong,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney.

The administration has heard these complaints and criticisms before, it contends because the economy is improving the programs aren’t needed as much.

Prieto said, “That is a weak excuse.”

Brian Kulas said he has three mental disorders and is grateful for public assistance at all levels.

“If I didn’t have these resources I would definitely be homeless. I would not get by. If I didn’t have food stamps my refrigerator would echo,” Kulas said.

The deadline to approve a 2018 state spending plan is June 30.