ACNJ’s Senate and Assembly Budget Testimony for the FY 2021 Truncated Budget

To:
Members, Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee
Members, Assembly Budget Committee

From:
Cecilia Zalkind, President & CEO
Cynthia Rice, Senior Policy Analyst
Advocates for Children of New Jersey 

Date: September 10, 2020

RE: ACNJ Testimony on the Proposed FY 2021 State Budget

Advocates for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ) appreciates the opportunity to provide the following comments on New Jersey’s proposed FY 2021 State Budget. ACNJ acknowledges and supports the many positive steps taken by Governor Murphy to address the challenges caused by COVID-19 while building the foundation of a post-pandemic future for New Jersey.  Much-needed additional funding for programs, such as child care and preschool expansion will support children, working families, and child care programs at this difficult time, while ensuring that children continue to learn and grow in safe, quality learning environments. 

Preschool Expansion
The proposed $10 million of state funds for preschool expansion continues the state’s commitment to ensuring that more 3- and 4-year-olds in additional eligible communities will benefit from New Jersey’s nationally recognized state-funded preschool program. Increased preschool access will provide more young children with the foundation critical to realizing success both in and out of the classroom.  Funding for preschool expansion continues to be money well spent for our children’s futures. 

Child Care
Governor Murphy’s recent announcement of the COVID Child Care Assistance Program, which will dedicate $250 million of CARES Act federal funds towards child care, is critically important for parents and child care programs. This funding will help ease the burden of working families requiring care for their school-age children during the virtual periods of the school schedule and assist already-struggling child care programs. The pandemic has dramatically demonstrated the importance of child care for children, parents, business and our economy. ACNJ also supports additional funding in the budget to help child care programs afford the increase in the minimum wage.  

Although this targeted funding is coming at a critical time for families and the child care community, it addresses only short-term issues. Many long-term problems that face our state child care system remain, including: inadequate access to quality infant/toddler care in the majority of New Jersey’s communities, an “essential” but unstable workforce because of chronic low-wages and lack of health care, and working families’ continued struggles to pay for child care. Long-term solutions to these issues and the funding to support them must be part of addressing the system’s challenges as well as carving out such a path forward. This is the time to reimagine child care and support it as the essential service it is. 

Baby Bonds
ACNJ applauds Governor Murphy’s efforts to address financial and racial inequities in New Jersey by proposing a $1,000 “baby bond” for each child born in 2021 into families earning less than 500 percent of the federal poverty level, with access to these funds occurring when the child turns 18. The proposed funding sends a strong message that New Jersey is committed to the future of all children, regardless of race or family income. It reflects the importance of looking toward the future, even in the midst of a crisis. 

Building a better future for our youngest children is something the Governor and Legislature must look toward as plans are developed beyond this budget. Baby bonds are a good first step, but more is needed. In June, ACNJ released Unlocking Potential, a plan to ensure that an additional 25 percent of the 109,000 infants and toddlers of low-income families in New Jersey – 27,000 children - have access to high-quality services by 2023.  Developed by a team of public and private sector leaders, supported by early childhood experts from across the state, the plan strengthens critical systems that support the healthy growth and development of our youngest children, including child care, home visiting, health and mental health services. The cost of this plan is $73 million, a small price to pay to address the racial, economic and geographic disparities that still present a barrier for every NJ child to reach his or her full potential. ACNJ hopes that the Legislature will use this roadmap as it develops plans for the future.

Proposed Funding Cuts
The FY 2021 proposed budget includes cuts to many core programs for children and families, at the time when such services are needed more than ever. As the Governor noted in his budget address, short-term cuts to programs that protect and lend a helping hand to families will have long-term consequences that are ultimately counterproductive to a strong recovery. ACNJ urges the Legislature to completely or partially restore funding in the proposed budget to these critical areas:

  • Mental Health and Prevention Services: Proposed cuts to the Department of Children and Families budget reduce or eliminate several longstanding programs that have supported children and families successfully for many years. Programs such as School-Based Youth Services, the Parent Link Project, the Post-Adoption Contract Services, among others, have helped prevent child abuse/neglect as well as the need for deeper-end, more costly services later. Similarly, cuts to the Department of Law and Public Safety budget eliminate or reduce programs for juveniles at risk of incarceration, such as the Youth Advocacy Program. 
  • Lead Prevention: Although modest cuts in lead prevention allow lead remediation programs to continue in FY2021, the State still needs a robust long-term investment in lead prevention. The elimination of a proposed $1.5M in the original February budget for childhood lead outreach in the Department of Health, combined with $20M in cuts to drinking water infrastructure funding in Environmental Protection and $5M in cuts to housing remediation, erodes the substantial progress the State was making towards eliminating lead poisoning entirely.
  • Early Intervention: New Jersey’s early intervention program assists children with disabilities under age 3. The proposed cut in spending of 10 percent will impact the frequency and duration of services for children with developmental delays and disabilities. Intervening early has been demonstrated to dramatically reduce the long-term impact of developmental delays, and cuts in this program will keep children from the assistance they need to reach their full potential.

ACNJ urges the Legislature to consider carefully the impact of reducing or eliminating these programs and, more importantly, whether there are systems in place to ensure that children and families will continue to be served. Families are facing increased stress due to the COVID pandemic. COVID has impacted every aspect of family life: education, income and health care. It has had a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable families and deepened racial and income inequity. This is exactly the wrong time to be reducing access to critical mental health and prevention services. Please review these proposed cuts carefully and consider whether the short-term savings will be worth the potential long-term impact on children and families and lead to more costly interventions later.

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