Smart Steps Program—Income Assistance to Full-Time Students Eligible for Welfare
The Smart Steps Program gives people who are eligible for welfare the option of receiving benefits while going to school full-time. Under the normal WorkFirst NJ (WFNJ) program, people who are not deferred from the work requirement have to participate in a work activity, and usually school can only count for part of this time. Under the Smart Steps Program, you can get all of the same benefits, but you can go to school full-time. There are a limited number of slots for this program, but right now there are still slots available. If you would like to go to school in order to increase your ability to get a good-paying job, now is the time to find out about Smart Steps.
What benefits can I get through Smart Steps?
The benefits provided through Smart Steps include:
Monthly cash assistance cash benefits are equal to the benefits provided in WFNJ for a family of the same size as your family;
WFNJ support services, including case management, child care, transportation assistance and, in some cases, Emergency Assistance; and
Other assistance provided through the welfare office, if you are eligible, including Medicaid and food stamps.
The time spent in the Smart Steps Program (up to five years) does not count toward your five-year time limit on WFNJ benefits.
Approved school programs can include college, vocational education programs, or adult education classes to get a GED before going on to college. The Smart Steps Program does not pay for school tuition or fees, but employment counselors can help you to apply for grants, scholarships, and student loans to cover these costs.
Who can participate?
There are some limits on who is eligible to participate in Smart Steps. Anyone who is currently receiving WFNJ-TANF benefits, anyone who is eligible for these benefits, and anyone who has left WFNJ in the past year can apply for the program, if all of the following are true:
You don't already have a college degree;
You are responsible for children or other family members who depend on your care;
You don't already have the skills to get a job that will allow you to support your family without depending on outside help;
You plan to get a degree that will improve your family's ability to be self-supporting; and
Your One-Stop employment counselor agrees that you meet these conditions.
How do I apply for Smart Steps?
If you meet all of the above criteria and want to go to school full-time, you can apply for the Smart Steps Program at your local One-Stop Career Center (OSCC). If you do not know where the OSCC is in your area, you can find it online by going to the Department of Labor One-Stop Career Center webpage and clicking on your county on the map. An employment counselor at the OSCC will help you fill out the application and determine whether you meet the criteria. If you think you are eligible but the employment counselor tells you that you are not, you can appeal (see What if I have a problem? below).
What happens once I get into Smart Steps?
Once you are approved to participate in Smart Steps, you have to enroll in an approved education program. The employment counselor can help you to select a program that will move you toward your employment goals. Most spring semesters begin in late January. Once you start the program, you will need to take 12 credit hours of classes each semester and maintain satisfactory progress. If you are going to college, this usually means keeping a 2.0 grade-point average. You also need to have good attendance at your classes. If you have a physical or mental health problem, a family violence issue, or other serious personal or family problems that make it hard for you to fully participate in the program, exceptions can be made. You can talk to your employment counselor about these problems, or about other issues related to your education. Assistance with social needs is provided through your county welfare agency.
You can receive Smart Steps benefits for up to five years, as long as you are enrolled in an approved school program. If you finish school or leave the Smart Steps Program but do not get a job right away, you can still get the same benefits through the WFNJ program, as long as you have not used up your five years of time on WFNJ and are eligible. If you lose your Smart Steps benefits, you can still use any grants, scholarships, or student loans you have received to go to school and you can apply for new grants, scholarships, or loans if you need them.
What if I have a problem?
If for any reason you are not allowed into the program, if your education benefits are taken away, or if a worker does something with your case that you think is wrong, you have the right to challenge the decision. If you want to challenge the decision, you have to do so within certain time frames.
If you can't work out the problem with your employment counselor, you have 10 days from the date of the denial/problem to make a request of the operator (supervisor) of your local OSCC to reconsider the employment counselors decision.
If the supervisor does not overturn the decision, you have 10 days from that date to make a request of the chief of the Division of One- Stop Programs to reconsider.
If the chief does not overturn the decision, you have 10 days from that date to make a request to the deputy assistant commissioner of the same Division to reconsider.
If at this point you are still being denied Smart Steps benefits, or at any time you are unsure about your legal rights, you can call LSNJLAWSM, Legal Services of New Jersey's statewide, toll-free legal hotline, at 1-888-LSNJ-LAW (1-888-576-5529).
This article appeared in the December 2005 issue of Looking Out for Your Legal Rights®.