There has been much fanfare regarding the restoration of a few programs that serve vulnerable people in the FY 2011 budget. But make no mistake; the budget expected to pass the Legislature today requires the greatest sacrifice from vulnerable working families hit hardest by the recession.
Let’s put the restorations in perspective. They amount to about $68 million, not including PAAD which was restored in an earlier separate agreement, in a budget which would spend just over $28 billion. As the governor’s chief of staff pointed out, these restorations amount to only about two-tenths of a percent (.02%) of the total state budget. He thought that was a good thing.
The Anti-Poverty Network indentified 26 programs (see list below) that were cut in the Christie budget that primarily affect the most vulnerable: low and moderate income families; the elderly; and people with disabilities. The list is conservative in that it does not include program cuts to items such as transportation and education, which serve mostly middle class and higher income groups as well as large numbers of low income people. The budget restorations only fund seven of those programs, leaving $262 million in program cuts to the most vulnerable.
The largest restoration was in General Assistance, which provides temporary financial assistance to unemployed adults without children. The Christie budget would have eliminated the entire $140 a month stipend, which is often the only source of income they have. The Legislature and the governor are to be commended for at least partially restoring this vital safety net program.
However, the administration did not restore cuts to the two largest programs that help vulnerable families remain independent. State and federal funding for New Jersey FamilyCare, which provides affordable health insurance for children and certain low income parents or guardians, was reduced by about $100 million. Enrollment has already been closed for parents with incomes between 133 percent and 200 percent of the federal poverty level ($24,352 to $36,620 for a parent with two children). This cut will be continued in FY 2011 resulting in 39,000 uninsured parents being denied health insurance at the same time many employers are dropping health coverage. Also, about 11,700 legal immigrant parents who have been in this country less than five years and currently receive health insurance through FamilyCare will lose their coverage altogether.
The state Earned Income Tax Credit was cut by $45 million, which will in effect increase taxes for 485,000 lower income households. At the same time, the governor refused to continue higher tax rates on those in the uppermost brackets, households with more than $400,000 in annual income. About 77 percent of the households that received the state EITC are working families with children. A parent earning the minimum wage in a full time job ($15,000) with two children will see his or her taxes increase by $300 as a result of this action. Taxes for wealthy households, on the other hand, will be cut by thousands of dollars.
It is also disturbing that the governor has opposed legislation which would restore the funds for the state EITC, if federal funds become available specifically for this purpose. Congress appears likely to act on legislation that would make $120 million in emergency contingency funds available to New Jersey without costing the state a dime. But the administration has rejected a budget resolution from Sen. Shirley Turner which would require that if such funds become available in FY 2011 they would be used to restore the state EITC cutback.
While the budget treats each of these programs separately, the cutbacks will have a cumulative impact on vulnerable families. Virtually all of the families that will lose or be denied health coverage in FamilyCare will also have the state EITC reduced. Many of these same families will also be denied vital supports like family planning, school breakfast, legal services, and affordable housing. None of the cuts in these programs have been restored in this budget. The combined effect on some families will be devastating and have long term consequences for them and the state’s economy.
Attempts are being made to restore some of these funds to vulnerable families in separate legislation. Senator Loretta Weinberg has introduced a bill to restore funding for family planning and Senator Joseph Vitale and Assemblyman Lou Greenwald have bills to restore funding for FamilyCare. If these bills pass the legislature, however, the governor is likely to veto these bills, as he did when the legislature passed a millionaires’ tax increase a month ago.
What some see as fiscal conservatism might be seen by others as plain mean-spiritedness.
It would appear that the deal on the FY 2011 budget is final but the fight to protect and support struggling working families in this high cost state must continue.