This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.
During the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers have taken action to address numerous issues raised by influential business groups, but advocates for New Jersey’s low- and middle-income residents say much more needs to be done to ensure families can avoid a devastating financial collapse.
Ongoing concerns about housing, health care, paid time off and rising personal debt were among those highlighted by advocates who held a virtual news conference Tuesday to bring more attention to some of the serious issues that families have been facing amid the pandemic.
The advocates called for the immediate adoption of several pieces of legislation, and for the establishment of a “Family Recovery Task Force” to ensure the needs of those who don’t have lobbyists in Trenton get the full attention of the governor and lawmakers.
They also cited an urgent need to mitigate the impact the pandemic is having on the state’s Black and Latino communities, which have been hit disproportionately hard.
“In the recovery discussions, we have found no shortage of political will to invest in business recovery,” said Charles Boyer, a pastor who serves as director of the nonprofit Salvation and Social Justice organization. “Our prayer, and our hope, is that there’s even more political compassion and moral conviction to provide relief to Black and Latino families dealing with the dual pandemics of systemic racism and COVID-19,” Boyer said.
While many states are just starting to see a spike in COVID-19 infections, New Jersey has been dealing with the impact of the pandemic for months, with nearly 170,000 cases and nearly 13,000 fatalities reported as of this week.
The pandemic had a ripple effect on the state economy as a series of strict social-distancing measures ordered to help slow the rate of infection limited business activity for several months in New Jersey. Those restrictions have recently begun to be lifted, but not before unemployment-benefits claims surged to record-setting highs.
Among the legislation passed by New Jersey lawmakers in response to the pandemic are measures providing emergency financial assistance to small businesses and significant tax breaks to casinos. Lawmakers have also launched efforts to provide regulatory relief to companies facing mass layoffs and to allow remote shareholder meetings to be held during the pandemic.
A number of bills have also been passed by lawmakers as part of their efforts to provide help to residents and families that are struggling during the pandemic. They include the establishment of a $100 million emergency rental-assistance program. Proposed revisions of the state’s primary welfare program have also been advanced by lawmakers, and Gov. Phil Murphy recently enacted a measure that allows local utility providers to waive interest and liens.
But Beverly Brown Ruggia, financial justice organizer with New Jersey Citizen Action, suggested during Tuesday’s news conference that influential lobbyists have been able to change some of the legislation directed at helping residents in ways that ultimately weaken their effectiveness.
She cited a measure that was called the “COVID-19 Financial Security for Consumers Act,” which had significant amendments made to it, including those related to debt collection.
Measures watered down to suit corporate interests?
“This is something that we’ve been deeply concerned about in terms of a number of initiatives to address issues that have arisen during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Brown Ruggia said. “There’s an initial understanding of the need for comprehensive protections that ends up gutted or (watered) down in order to accommodate corporate interests.”
“From this moment on, it’s critical for the state to provide meaningful and comprehensive consumer financial protections for everyone in order to keep people in their homes, to prevent expanded debt, to protect credit, and to give everyone in the state a fighting chance to survive and recover,” she said.
Among the initiatives the advocates would like to see enacted without major alterations are those that would protect against mass evictions and prevent seizure of properties. Expanding the number of mandatory paid sick days would prevent essential workers from having to choose between preserving their financial stability and abiding by public-health recommendations, including quarantining for two weeks, the advocates said.
They also said providing financial assistance to undocumented immigrants — including those whose payroll taxes help fund state unemployment benefits and other assistance programs — should be a priority.
Already a big wealth gap in NJ
The advocates also called for the establishment of the new task force to ensure the needs of New Jersey’s families, including Blacks and Latinos, are getting the attention they deserve. They cited the state’s already significant wealth gap and high rates of poverty as reasons to show more urgency in response to the pandemic.
And while the pandemic is putting pressure on the state budget as tax collections have slowed in recent months, Brandon McKoy, president of the Trenton-based New Jersey Policy Perspective think tank, warned against waiting for federal government action to offset revenue shortfalls. His group recently proposed several ways the state could raise more revenue on its own during the pandemic, including by forcing New Jersey’s high earners to contribute more through income taxes.
“Lack of relief from the federal government is no reason for New Jersey to not do as much as we can now to strengthen and implement critical programs and services that will speed our recovery and raise the revenue necessary to make those investments possible,” McKoy said.
Several advocates said delaying more action could mean the state having to face even higher costs due to increased demand for taxpayer-funded social services.
“Those that will end up being put out on the street will additionally need services; they’ll need assistance and aid from the state,” said James Williams, director of racial justice policy for the Fair Share Housing Center.
“If we don’t deal with this now, upfront, taxpayers are going to be on the hook anyway because we are going to be providing a ton of social services to all of the people who are homeless and needing all kinds of assistance,” said Christian Estevez, president of the Latino Action Network.
“The ripple effects of this will be felt for years, if not decades,” Estevez said.