New Jerseyans with Disabilities: Our State’s Underclass

Salvatore Pizzuro
Disability Policy Specialist

New Jerseyans with disabilities have three times the unemployment rate of their non-disabled peers. Consequently, the disability community is stunned by the State’s current plan to cut $3.8 million dollars from the program that enables non-profit agencies to prepare people with disabilities for the workforce.

People with disabilities also have a much higher rate of homelessness, and are less likely to receive adequate health care. The optimum alternative is to have as many members of the disability community serving in the workforce, paying taxes, contributing to the economy, and serving as an asset, rather than a liability, for society.

The current downturn in the economy will affect all New Jerseyans and all Americans. The State’s response to economic woes appears to be administrative belt tightening that will result in fewer people in the workforce, and fewer spending money, thus continuing a downward spiral that can end with a true economic meltdown.

An effort that has taken the disability community decades to add its members to the workforce can be setback over night. A slow moving, yet modestly successful movement can be set back thirty years. The State Administration has to launch initiatives that will truly stimulate the economy, rather than engage in cost saving measures that will only result in eliminating the little growth that is left.

Certainly, People with disabilities will increasingly move from underemployment to living on public assistance. They will increasingly become wards of the State or welfare recipients. A responsible goal for all levels of government would be to ensure that as many of these individuals as possible become employable and employed, paying taxes and contributing to society in some way. Unfortunately, the current economic crisis may eliminate many of the gains that people with disabilities have achieved over the past thirty years.

The cuts that were recently reported will be taken from a program that was designed to engage New Jerseyans with disabilities in the workforce. Unfortunately, the Corzine Administration is desperately searching for additional cost saving measures. Furthermore, it has become apparent that State income could be as much as six billion dollars less than was originally anticipated. Not only will State services be in jeopardy, but the generic standard of living will be impacted, as well.

Nevertheless, cuts in the job training programs may not save the State money in the long run if, as previously mentioned, the result is additional public money being spent on welfare programs for unemployed people who would otherwise have been members of the workforce.

The future for New Jerseyans with disabilities appears bleak. We are in danger of creating a permanent “underclass’ that will experience a lifestyle that is distinctively separate from that of their non-disabled peers. People with disabilities, including highly educated and trained professionals, remain second class citizens in New Jersey and nationally. Unfortunately, legal mandates will not change public attitudes. The concept of people with disabling conditions must change in the hearts and minds of all citizens before these individuals will receive the opportunities that they have earned and deserve.

We know that this distinctly separate lifestyle for people with disabilities exists among highly trained professionals, including medical doctors, lawyers, and others. Despite high academic and professional achievement, such individuals have experienced limited opportunities because of their disabling conditions. Sadly, efforts by the State to move these individuals into an active status in their chosen professions will continue to wane. Having such highly trained professionals sitting on the sidelines, rather than contributing to society and their professions is self-defeating for New Jersey and America.

Quite simply, New Jersey must make greater efforts to prepare for and place people with disabilities in the workforce. This effort should be intense during good economic times and bad. Acceptance of an underclass of New Jerseyans with disabilities should never be an option.

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