Providing Testimony in Support of S2806

Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of New Jersey In Support of S2806

Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee

December 10, 2015


Thank you for the opportunity to address this Committee in support of S2806.  My name is Deb Ellis and I am testifying on behalf of Rev. Craig Hirshberg, Executive Director of the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of New Jersey (UULMNJ), who unfortunately could not be here today. I represent Unitarian Universalist congregations throughout the State of New Jersey.  As people of faith, we believe that the exclusion of people with drug convictions from the opportunity to participate in Work First New Jersey General Assistance program is a violation of a just and democratic society. The exclusions conflicts with basic Unitarian Universalist moral values including: the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice and equity; and compassion in human relations.

As Unitarian Universalists, the first principle of our faith is our belief that each individual has inherent worth and dignity. “Inherent” means that the worth of an individual does not have to be earned – it is present in each of us. As a consequence, we strongly believe that the General Assistance exclusion should be repealed because individuals who have been convicted of drug offenses have the same worth and dignity as all other people and thus should have the same opportunity to become productive citizens once they have repaid their debt to society. Under current law, people are disqualified from receiving General Assistance if they have been convicted of distributing even small amounts of marijuana. When we make mistakes, each of us deserves a second chance and the opportunity to rebuild our lives through participation in work programs like Work First New Jersey.

Second, we support S2806 because justice and equity are central to our Unitarian Universalist faith. Our belief that the “Beloved Community” must be realized through human effort requires our attention to how we share the wealth of our planet. We believe that there is a societal obligation to ensure that all people are able to obtain for themselves and their families the basic material needs of food, shelter, and safety. This Legislature’s action in 1997 to exclude from General Assistance benefits only those individuals who had drug convictions was part of the now discredited War on Drugs which resulted in mass incarceration and deprivation of civil and human rights for millions of U. S. citizens. Moreover, the War on Drugs extremely disproportionately focused on people of color. As people of faith, we believe that in order to have a just society, every part of the War on Drugs must now be remedied. Enacting S2806 is an important step in dismantling the injustices of the War on Drugs.

Our final reason for supporting S2806 is our Unitarian Universalist faith belief in compassion in human relations. As you know, S2806 would enable individuals with drug convictions to be eligible for the extremely low cash benefit of General Assistance (capped at $140 per month or $210 per month for those unable to work). Even though the amount is low, being able to receive General Assistance can literally be the difference between life and death, being sheltered or homeless. This is because recipients who are homeless or might become homeless can also receive Emergency Assistance, which can be used to pay for shelter stays and rental assistance. Without this help, many excluded individuals are forced to live in tent cities, abandoned buildings, or become institutionalized in hospitals or jails.

When the General Assistance exclusion was adopted in 1997, individuals with drug convictions were also excluded from food stamps and medical care. However, the rules for NJ’s Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program programs have been changed so that individuals with drug convictions have access to the life-saving assistance of food and health care. As the winter cold descends and in celebration of the holiday season, isn’t it time to also give these individuals access to shelter and the chance to rebuild their lives by participating in Work First New Jersey? As Unitarian Universalists, we believe so.

For all these reasons, I urge you to support S2806. Thank you for your attention.

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