For reversal -- Chief Justice Hughes, Justices Mountain, Sullivan, Pashman, Clifford and Schreiber and Judge Conford. For affirmance -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Hughes, C.J.
[71 NJ Page 43] These appeals (certified here while pending unheard in the Appellate Division, 68 N.J. 176 (1975)) challenge the validity of a regulation of the Division of Public Welfare, New Jersey Department of Institutions and Agencies, setting lower levels of financial assistance to persons classified as "employable" than to those classified as "unemployable." The primary issue is whether that classification is arbitrary and unreasonable on its face or as applied; related to this question is the collateral issue of whether the classification violates the Equal Protection clause or is contrary to the policy and purpose of the controlling statute.
There are subsidiary questions such as whether the relief afforded employables is sufficient to meet their basic needs for survival; whether a municipal director of welfare has the authority or duty to extend "general assistance" in an amount exceeding that prescribed by valid state regulation, and whether initial jurisdiction to consider the questions presented belonged in the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court or in the Appellate Division.
The intervention of the Public Advocate and other legal services groups directs our attention not only to the rights of the individual appellants but to those of other recipients of public assistance ("welfare") similarly situated.
In light of our finding that the challenged regulation is incompatible with the legislative policy and standard of the statute, we need to address only the additional jurisdictional question.
The individual appellants are welfare recipients. Pursuant to a regulation of the Division of Public Welfare, General Assistance Manual § 2.300A (III) (4) (hereafter the "regulation"), a maximum allowance of $178 per month is provided to adults who "because of physical, mental or emotional handicaps are unable to accept employment." This class is designated as unemployable. As to adults who are employable, however, Schedule II of the regulation limits the monthly allowance to $119. The regulation was promulgated on September 1, 1971, by the Commissioner of Institutions and Agencies (hereafter "Commissioner") pursuant to the General Public Assistance Law, N.J.S.A. 44:8-107 et seq. The individual appellants are classified as employables and hence are only entitled to the lower monthly allowance.
General assistance, which is sometimes referred to as "municipal welfare," is a state-supervised, municipally administered public assistance program available to needy persons not otherwise provided for under state laws, that is to say persons not qualifying for "categorical" welfare aid such as
old age assistance, aid to the blind, disability assistance, aid to families with dependent children or aid to families of the working poor.
General assistance is considered a "residual" or last resort program under which aid is given to needy single persons and married couples between 18 and 65 years of age who have no minor children. Under the statute cited, the State regulates the program for approximately 400 municipalities which accept state financial assistance.
Before 1971 general assistance grants were based on the extent of need as calculated for individual cases. A budget was prepared to correlate an applicant's actual costs, for shelter, clothing, personal and household needs and scheduled sums for food, to his income and resources. N.J.A.C. 10:85-2.1 et seq. In 1971, however, all state welfare programs including categorical assistance and general assistance eliminated such individualized computations and instituted a "flat grant" system. It was then that the employable-unemployable classification was introduced as part of the general assistance scheme. The history of the regulation is essentially silent on the basis for the distinction, and no public hearings were held before its promulgation.
As of 1974 there were approximately 16,495 general assistance recipients in the state and of these an estimated 5,000 to 8,000 were employables.
Neither classification of welfare aid is extended to persons able to work who refuse to accept employment when it is available. All able recipients must continuously seek work or face loss of aid. See N.J.S.A. 44:1-94, 44:8-118. The individual appellants herein have complied with this requirement and thus these cases do not involve persons unwilling to work, but on the contrary persons who are anxious to work but unable to find jobs.
The appellants set their cases in the context of the present economic climate including not only the high state unemployment
figures and the widespread unavailability of work, but inflationary increases in the cost of food, housing, transportation and health needs. They contend that the present state of the economy renders the distinctions between employables and unemployables especially onerous and oppressive. On the other hand, the Department of Institutions and Agencies and the City of Trenton through its Department of Welfare point to the finite nature of welfare resources and the potential economic strain of providing all general assistance recipients with equal benefits.
The predicament of the individual appellants dramatically portrays this confrontation of interests and needs. Appellant Antoinette Pascucci is a single woman living alone. She has received general assistance from the City of Trenton since November 1973. Considered an employable as defined by the regulation, her grant would be limited to $119 per month.*fn1 Her expenses are alleged to be $207 per month, detailed as follows: mortgage payment, $70; food, $65; clothing, $5; personal items, $10; transportation to find work, $7; utilities, $45; cleaning bills, $5. She has fallen behind in her mortgage payments and faces foreclosure; her diet is inadequate and she suffers from hunger; she is unable to provide heat for her home when needed and contends that the assistance provided her is "woefully inadequate" even for mere existence.
Following a refusal by the Director of the Trenton Municipal Welfare Department to increase her financial aid from $119, the amount prescribed by the regulation, Ms. Pascucci brought suit in the Mercer County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court challenging the denial and asserting the ...