Assistant Commissioner Jennifer Velez' Testimony - Confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee - June 18, 2007 Good morning and thank you, Chairman Adler, Vice-Chairman Girgenti and members of the Committee.
I am honored that you have invited me here to discuss my nomination by Governor Corzine to be the commissioner of the Department of Human Services.
Nearly 10 years ago, while working for a law firm, I was reading the Star Ledger and came across a feature article about this department. The story was not entirely positive – there was discussion of systemic failures and fiscal insufficiencies; personnel problems and external support lapses.
The article talked about the trials and tribulations that the Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Human Services faces on a daily basis:
-averting tragedy in a psychiatric hospital;
-making certain that non-English-speaking constituents are served in their language and with cultural sensitivity;
-balancing the needs of welfare clients with the resources available;
-and providing the best safety net possible for New Jersey’s residents in need.
The commissioner in the story was Bill Waldman and reading about him and his job changed my professional life. Then, I felt great admiration for his fortitude, his tenacity, and his leadership. He never lost his passion to effect change. It was this enthusiasm that brought me out of the private practice of law to enter government. Today, I still rely upon his practical wisdom, the depth of his experience, and still, of course, his compassion.
About five months after reading that story about DHS, I was able to join Gov. Whitman’s counsel staff and wind my way on the path that brings me before you today – and I have never felt more eager, more motivated, more personally satisfied, and more challenged.
I believe in the New Jersey Department of Human Services. Through time and experience, I know our programs can, and do, make a positive difference in people’s lives. I’ve seen it and, as you’ve probably read, I’ve lived it.
For a short time while growing up in Bergen County, my mother relied upon government assistance through food stamps and welfare for my sister and me. Those were difficult years, indeed, but they deepened my understanding and shaped my empathy for what it means to struggle financially. And although my life is not that of a single parent whose paycheck does not stretch far enough for essentials, and while my past did not include issues of domestic violence, or sporadic child support payments or unreliable child care – that was the life of my mother and – for too long – the life of my older sister. So I understand how difficult some choices are for families.
And I understand the challenges our TANF families face every day and how important it is that a family’s dignity is preserved while they endeavor to create a better life for themselves and for their family.
The Department of Human Services touches more than 1.5 million New Jerseyans everyday – oftentimes with the support of our sister agencies – and always with the support of our community partners – whether those in need require short term supports, or ongoing, longer term care.
Managing a department of this size requires proper stewardship of fiscal and human resources to make the appropriate choices and decisions to help as many people as we can – of course as efficiently as possible. But most fundamentally, managing the Department of Human Services requires compassionate leadership. There are many examples of not only sound investment of State resources, but compassionate management of what is simply the right thing to do. I met a woman just a few weeks ago who is blind and uses a wheelchair. She had languished in a nursing home for 12 years before she benefited from our Personal Assistance Services Program – which is available for persons with a permanent disability. Through the help of this program, which I think is nothing short of a small miracle in state government, she was able to return to her former life and livelihood – and fully participate in her community.
In my career working with this department and in this department, I have been touched by her story and countless others: people, who, I’d like to think, see the department as a partner and not a paternalistic intrusion or factor in their lives.
There is so much we have yet to do to help our constituents take hold of their own lives; to create opportunities that foster self-sufficiency and independence.
The creation of sustainable, permanent and affordable housing options for so many of our clients – those with developmental disabilities, mental illness, those who struggle with substance abuse, and those with very limited financial means – this is a critically important issue that demands our attention.
Improving employment options for our clients as well – so desperately needed. It has been estimated that, nationally, 70 percent of all persons with a disability are unemployed. This is entirely unacceptable. So many of our clients aspire to attain lives full of hope, dignity, respect and socialization that all of us enjoy when fully employed – at every level of ability. And so it behooves us to create and support those opportunities for those who can and will live their fullest lives.
This department is not without its challenges. And while some of those challenges that were present in 1997 still plague us over a decade later, I believe we’re on the right path today, but all of it requires courage and leadership.
- We still need to balance the needs of welfare clients with the resources available. The ten-year anniversary of this country’s major overhaul of welfare policy just passed – and we took a hard look at WorkFirst NJ – what we’re doing right – what can be improved, what serves our clients best – and, of course, what the feds require.
- We still need to provide the best safety net possible for our lowest income residents – particularly our uninsured kids and families. The ten-year anniversary of the State’s Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) just passed as well – and we’re undergoing a similar analysis: what can we do to maximize coverage for those who need it most.
- We’re still averting tragedy in our psychiatric hospitals – although now we have the benefit of the great work of the mental health task force to help guide our way – and we’re getting there.
- And we’re still making certain that non-English speaking constituents are served in their language – and with cultural sensitivity. Today, however, the demographics of our state require us to consider an inordinately greater number of language and cultures than ever before – and we are doing just that.
- And we must continue to fight poverty. In this great state, the divide between the haves and have-nots is ever growing and I’m so very committed to this noble and worthwhile struggle to – at the very least – be sure that our safety net is sturdy for those who rely upon our supports, including Food Stamps; cash assistance through Work First New Jersey; child care; and an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit.
- The list goes on…..
I look forward to working on behalf of all of our clients – to understand their abilities and not merely their disabilities – to continue what I started when I set out on this path about 10 years ago. And I feel so very privileged to be in a place and in a position to positively impact their lives, every day.
Frankly, the Bill Waldman story that grabbed my attention still has it 10 years later. And it’s not letting go.
I will be happy now to answer any questions you may have. Thank you.