As potential cuts to the federal Medicaid program command headlines, advocates in New Jersey are raising concerns about shrinking state programs for the poor.
Funding for several state welfare programs, including assistance for people at immediate risk of becoming homeless, has decreased 50 percent since fiscal 2015, according to New Jersey Policy Perspective, a left-leaning think tank.
Meanwhile, the benefit for a family of three under the state's public assistance program for poor families remains at $424 a month, where it has been since 1987.
Advocates are pressing lawmakers to increase benefits in the upcoming state budget and to reverse a separate $5 million cut to legal services for the poor proposed by Gov. Christie.
"We cannot stand by and watch the safety net crumble before our eyes," Renee Koubiadis, executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey, said at a Statehouse news conference Thursday.
Christie administration officials say the reason for the $163 million decrease in cash and other assistance is not that the state is cutting its welfare programs, but that fewer people are participating in them.
"Anyone determined eligible for these programs is processed and enrolled, regardless of the budgeted appropriations," said Nicole Brossoie, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services.
Advocates say the need is not decreasing.
"The problem is that the improvement in the economy is not reaching lower-income people," said Ray Castro, senior policy analyst for New Jersey Policy Perspective. "We still have the same number of kids in poverty, but the enrollment has been cut by 41 percent in that time. It's not responsive to the need."
The poverty rate in New Jersey was 10.8 percent in 2015, down from 11.1 percent the year before, but still above pre-recession levels. In 2007, the state's poverty rate was 8.7 percent, according to the Legal Services of New Jersey Poverty Research Institute.
Those rates are based on the federal poverty level, which was $24,250 for a family of four in 2015. That measure does not fully reveal the problem, because it does not account for New Jersey's high cost of living, according to the institute.
Advocates have said Christie's administration is interpreting eligibility requirements for the state's Emergency Assistance program differently from in the past, deeming people ineligible because they "caused their own homelessness."
In response to questions from the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services this year, the Department of Human Services did not address assertions that more people are being denied emergency assistance. But it noted that fewer people are participating in the state's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, one of the programs people must qualify for in order to receive emergency assistance.
Eligibility for TANF is tied to its benefit level. But because the benefit level is not being increased for inflation, "in effect, every year that TANF does not get a cost-of-living increase, fewer families with kids are eligible," said Castro, who formerly worked for the Department of Human Services and helped design the program.
If the TANF benefit had kept pace with inflation, the benefit would be about $930 a month.
Christie last year vetoed a bill passed by the Democratic-controlled Legislature that would have increased the maximum TANF benefit 30 percent over three years, with automatic future cost-of-living adjustments. The Office of Legislative Services projected the bill would have cost the state $14.2 million the first fiscal year, $27.1 million the next, and $38.6 million the third.
In addition to carrying "substantial costs," the bill "does not account for the breadth of existing programs and assistance to ensure that individuals can meet their most basic needs and have access to tools that help them to find and keep a job," Christie said in his veto message.
He noted that the state's benefit was higher than in Pennsylvania, where the maximum monthly benefit for a family of three in some counties was $421 last year, and Delaware, where it was $338.
New Jersey's maximum TANF benefit is the seventh-lowest in the country when housing costs are considered, according to Castro.
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) said Thursday that lawmakers were trying to increase TANF benefits in the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Christie can line-item veto spending from the budget passed by lawmakers.
"It's unacceptable that for 30 years you're getting the same amount in a state like New Jersey that's so high-cost," Prieto said.
Prieto and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) also expressed support for Legal Services of New Jersey, which would lose $5 million under Christie's budget plan.
Legal Services, which provides free civil legal aid to the poor, says the cut would reduce its annual caseload by 5,000 cases.
In addition to the state's appropriation, Legal Services receives about $10 million a year from court fees through a fund that took effect in November 2014, said Willem Rijksen, a spokesman for the state treasurer's office.
While Christie is recommending "a slight reduction" of $5 million for Legal Services, Rijksen said, its total funding has increased from $16 million to $21 million since fiscal year 2012.
At Thursday's news conference, several people described how Legal Services had resolved challenges.
Teresa Mack, 55, of Mercer County, got help after the house where she was living in an apartment was sold to a new owner.