A new report urging the biggest overhaul of New Jersey’s cash public assistance program since the 1990s was released this week – and much of it was incorporated into a bill approved by the state Senate the same day.

Ray Castro, health policy director for New Jersey Policy Perspective, said it had been 30 years since benefits were increased before they went up 30% two years ago but that far more improvements are needed.

“We’ve been working with this for like two years, and so the point here is to comprehensively change the program,” Castro said.

The bill requires annual increases to benefits each July and expands eligibility to college students, business interns and non-citizens covered by the DACA program, among other changes.

Renee Koubiadis, executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey, said it uses many of the solutions in the new report that seeks to make WorkFirst NJ less punitive.

“Without these changes, this program will continue to shrink and will cease to be a safety net for our poorest residents,” Koubiadis said.

The report said WorkFirst NJ helps 15% of families living below the federal poverty level and that participation is down 91% since 1996.

The proposed bill also includes a few additional provisions for the coronavirus crisis, such as expanded eligibility and benefits and efforts to prevent homelessness.

“It is critical therefore that improvements be made in TANF soon so that a response to what is expected to be an unprecedented increase in emergency needs of families caught up by the pandemic,” Castro said.

“With the COVID-19 public health crisis and its current and future impacts, now is the time to reform this key program so that it remains a critical safety and provides the supports needed to lift families out of poverty,” Koubiadis said.

Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said the bill moved forward without public hearings, during a session conducted by phone devoted to coronavirus response, because welfare reform is important.

“We’re doing things outside the norm and we’re going to slow down a bit and focus more bills in committees. It does give you a better product. But this is something that we’ve talked about and looked at for years,” Sweeney said.

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The bill, S2329, allocates $25 million to help pay for the increased benefits, but the bill doesn’t yet have a fiscal analysis by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services. It passed by a 26-0 vote Monday.

The Assembly version of the bill, A3905, was not considered Monday.

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Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.