- Associated Press - Saturday, January 30, 2016

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - New Jersey Democratic lawmakers have embarked on an ambitious agenda to fight poverty, but the price tag to taxpayers is uncertain.

The push from Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto comes as combatting poverty - an idea stretching back to Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty five decades ago - is gaining currency nationally. Recently, President Barack Obama called on Congress to enact a $12 billion plan over 10 years to help feed millions of schoolchildren from low-income families, and Republican presidential candidates, including Gov. Chris Christie, participated in a forum on the topic.

In Trenton, four legislative committees discussed the subject in the past week. The meetings did not yield legislation, which is expected to come later this year.

Prieto says he has “no idea” yet about a potential price tag, but believes the state could more efficiently manage federal dollars, which go toward programs like food stamps.

“This is something that affects everybody,” Prieto said.

Republicans don’t want to see the programs lead to higher taxes, but Democrats are hopeful whatever legislation they craft won’t carry a heavy cost.

“If we can get more people to work it won’t cost us anything because it’ll pay for itself,” said Democratic Assemblyman John Wisniewski.

The new push stems from a Legal Services of New Jersey study from late last year that indicated New Jersey has as many as 2.8 million people - nearly a third of its population - living in poverty. The nonprofit offers pro bono legal services for the state’s poor residents.

The level it found differs significantly from federal data, which show about 10 percent of the state’s population living in poverty. Experts say the federal figure ignores the high cost of living in New Jersey, a point conceded by Democrats and Republicans alike.

The federal government estimates that a family of four could earn about $24,000 annually to be above the poverty threshold, but United Way of Northern New Jersey estimates the level is about $61,000 in New Jersey.

Though the push is new, it’s well-trod area for lawmakers.

Democrats succeeded in 2013 in amending the state constitution to provide for a minimum wage that rises with inflation. In 2014, Prieto pushed bills aimed at advancing workforce training, which Christie signed into law.

Legislation to require employers to offer paid sick time ultimately stalled. Christie also vetoed a bill that would have authorized family planning services through Medicaid for residents earning up to two times the federal poverty level.

“It’s a very big complex problem,” said Gordon MacInnes, president of the progressive think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective. “It’s been 51 years since LBJ declared war on poverty, and it hasn’t disappeared.”

In Trenton, where more than a quarter of the population lives below the federal poverty line, the anti-poverty agenda was met with some skepticism.

Benjamin Evans, a 51-year-old out-of-work carpenter and father of three, arrived at the Crisis Ministry food pantry for the first time recently. Evans says he has no steady income, but he is hopeful work will pick up when the weather turns warmer. He’s not sure policy changes are what will help most people and adds that he’s seen welfare checks misused.

“Everybody needs help some times,” he said. “(But) a person has to help themselves. When you provide for them, they sit around and wait for that check.”

Advocates of policies aimed at reducing poverty acknowledge how persistent it can be and argue that it cannot be fixed with a single bill. It requires increased access to jobs, training, scheduling conveniences and logistics. In other words, they say, a safety net.

“I don’t know if there is a silver bullet,” said Analilia Mejia, executive director of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, “But I know there is a silver net.”

New Jersey Republicans are worried about adding costs.

“There’s nobody anywhere who’s got a heart that wouldn’t say we need to find ways to help people who are desperately in need,” said Republican Assemblyman Scott Rumana. “(But) you can’t keep on taxing people more and more.”

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