Programs for At-Risk Women on NJ Gov's Chopping Block

Faced with an $11-billion budget deficit, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed 2011 state budget includes some deep and painful cuts. One of the programs in the cross-hairs is the Ujima Urban Women Center, a program that keeps women out of prison and helps find them jobs.


Come June 30, the state’s $95,000 aid grant to the center based in Trenton, N.J., will be yanked, leaving hundreds of at-risk women, including ex-offenders and victims of domestic violence, out in the cold.

Kim Copeland, the center’s executive director, believes the decision to eliminate the program is short-sighted and could ultimately end up costing New Jersey taxpayers up to $2 million in the long run.

A former Wall Street equity trader who recently graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary, Copeland has been running the Trenton program for the past 18 months. She says the state’s decision to cut its $95,000 aid grant does not make financial sense. It currently costs the state $38,900 a year to incarcerate one woman offender, she says, adding, “If Ujima keeps just three women out of prison, it will have paid for itself.”

According to Copeland, Ujima last year alone managed to keep 50 women out of trouble and out of jail. “If Ujima is allowed to continue, it offers the state of New Jersey a savings of close to $2 million dollars for an investment of a mere $95,000 this year,” Copeland says. “Legislators and taxpayers are being forced to choose between worthy causes, but we don’t know if this is smart cut for taxpayers because so many of our women are going to be at a greater risk for incarceration or re-incarceration if our program goes away completely.”

Copeland said the center is guaranteed funding until June 30 but will have to shutter its doors if the funding is not reinstated or they don’t find an alternate source of funding.

Two similar urban women centers in Newark and Camden are also being eliminated from Christie’s 2011 state budget, as well as three Latino women’s-resource centers in New Jersey that provide English-literacy classes, computer classes and a variety of other social services, she says.

Copeland says that since its inception in 2007, the Ujima Urban Women Center has served more than 400 at-risk women, providing them with adult basic education/GEDs, financial management, support groups and individual counseling, a professional clothing closet, job coaching, computer training, life skills, nutrition and exercise, and more.

Copeland says since June 2009, Ujima has placed 32 urban women in new jobs at an average salary of $25,000 a year. “This removed them from public assistance and generated more than $100,000 in new state tax revenue,” she says.

New Jersey’s labor market was decimated during the national recession that began in 2007, with the unemployment rate currently hovering around 10 percent. While unemployment for both men and women has climbed sharply, Copeland says the unemployment rate for adult women has climbed twice as fast as for men.

“When women are affected by joblessness and poverty, there is a disproportionate impact upon children and families,” she says. Copeland says nearly 50 percent of the households living in Trenton are headed by single mothers living at or below the poverty line. “One of the most debilitating barriers for the women we serve is the belief that no one cares about their plight [and] that they are abandoned and unwelcome in society at large.”

Beginning in June 2009, the center added a re-entry program track for women who are formerly incarcerated and/or struggling with a criminal record. While Copeland recognizes the economic recession in New Jersey has forced policymakers to make tough choices between worthy causes, she says the center should be spared because its strategy for at-risk women works. She says the center reduces recidivism, successfully places urban women in new jobs, puts families back on track, and increases the state personal income tax coffers.

“We support the elimination of programs that don’t deliverbut Ujima is not a feel-good program,” she says. “Reducing budgets is not just about cutting deep, it’s about cutting smart. The bottom line is simple: Prevention is cheaper than incarceration.For those who value the bottom line, New Jersey policymakers should reconsider.”

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