It is rare for legislative hearings to take place on days other than Monday or Thursday, but on Wednesday, Assembly Speaker Vinnie Prieto convened four special committee meetings to start addressing the very real problem of poverty in New Jersey.

(KatarzynaBialasiewicz, ThinkStock)

“If we get right down to it, it’s incredible to think that the State of New Jersey has a higher poverty rate than it has had in the last 50 years,” said Prieto (D-Secaucus). “I want to rebuild the middle class by lifting people out of poverty. If we can do that, then the State of New Jersey’s future is very bright.”

The four panels that met Wednesday were:

  • The Assembly Human Services Committee: the focus was on existing and needed State and Federal services to help people overcome poverty.
  • The Assembly Women and Children Committee: the focus was on employment issues such as job training availability, pay equity and employment barriers and issues that impact children living in poverty.
  • The Assembly Transportation Committee: the focus was on New Jersey’s transportation network and how it could be better used to help those in poverty.
  • The Assembly Housing and Economic Development Committee: the focus was on the housing problems and needs of families living in poverty.

It’s not likely that addressing each of the issues and improving services will be free and the speaker said he was well aware of that.

“What’s going to be the price tag on this? We don’t know. We don’t know what it is. Hopefully it’s not much. Hopefully we can do a lot more,” Prieto said.

The idea behind the hearings is to take testimony from experts, stakeholders and the public so that information can be gathered to guide lawmakers in finding ways to draft bills that would actually help people living in poverty.

“However it’s defined, we still know in New Jersey that we have an issue here and we need to address it and we need to provide services for it,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Englewood), chair of the Assembly Human Services Committee.

The speaker cited statistics revealed that in 2014, there were 2.8 million New Jersey adults living in poverty and about 800,000 children that live in poverty. Among those to testify Tuesday was Patrick Brannigan, executive director of the NJ Catholic Conference. He began by thanking Prieto for focusing on poverty.

“The faces of poverty are the women, men and children not only in our cities, but also in our suburbs and rural areas. They are our neighbors in need of jobs, food, housing, education,” Brannigan said.

The executive director of the New Jersey Apartment Association, David Brogan testified before the Assembly Housing and Community Development Committee.

“A solution cannot come fast enough,” said Brogan. “As Speaker Prieto has pointed out, the level of poverty in New Jersey is the highest it has been in modern history. New Jersey’s middle class is shrinking, with poverty and income inequality increasing, even during the economic recovery. Unlike past recoveries, where nearly all groups saw increased incomes, in this recovery those at the very top are seeing nearly all of the gains.”

Kevin McArdle has covered the State House for New Jersey 101.5 news since 2002. Contact him at Follow him on twitter at @kevinmcardle1.

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