JENNIFER VELEZ arrived at Drew 25 years ago, not far removed from a childhood at times spent on the welfare rolls. Today, as commissioner of the N.J. Department of Human Services, she’s charged with helping those in similar straits.
By John T. Ward
It was late June 2006, and Trenton rarely had seen such teeming madness. A 50-year flood, courtesy of a rain-bloated Delaware River, was pouring into the parking garage of the State House and threatening other buildings in the capitol complex. Government workers were sent home by the hundreds. And that was just the sideshow. Inside the State House, a first-year governor was locked in a budget staredown with legislators from his own party; if the impasse didn’t end in a matter of days, the most densely populated state in the nation would lose most government functions.
Media attention was focused mostly on what such a closure would mean to beaches, parks and casinos over the looming July 4 holiday. But in the six-story box that houses the N.J. Department of Human Services, a skeleton crew of officials faced a logistical quandary: how to safeguard benefits to welfare recipients, who use debit cards issued by banks to buy necessities. Without a state budget in place, there would be no cash to reimburse the banks, which would in turn shut off credit. Tens of thousands of needy families would have their already stressed lives thrown into disarray, unable to buy groceries and pay their rent.
Among the officials present, Deputy Commissioner Jennifer Velez C’87 almost certainly was the only one who’d actually been a beneficiary of the state dole. She’d spent her entire childhood on society’s economic margin and knew what it meant for a family to weigh a $10 fee for a class trip against the prospect of a missed meal. To her, the matter of how to keep the money flowing was anything but bureaucratic, and she threw herself into finding a solution. Kevin Ryan, human services commissioner at the time, says Velez “literally camped out for two days, convincing and cajoling” the CEOs of two major banks to do what banks are loathe to do: take a flyer. Even without the ability to promise the banks when they’d be repaid, Velez persuaded them that at some point they absolutely would be. The deal held throughout the ensuing eight-day state shutdown.
“I’m telling you, but for the sheer force of her will, I am quite sure that the safety net would not have been there for those kids and families,” Ryan says. “It was a real pressure-cooker moment where others might have said, ‘I’ve done all I could, this is a political stalemate—let the chips fall where they may.’ But Jen was not going to be drawn into that at all.”
For Velez, the experience was “harrowing,” but unavoidable. “Government really has to work for people,” she says. “I just really believe that.”
The Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) gained an unwelcome measure of infamy in recent years over the deaths of foster children supposedly under its watch. As part of a 2006 reform effort, DYFS was spun off from human services. Ryan became the agency’s first commissioner, and Velez succeeded her former boss as commissioner of human services.
But even without DYFS, the 16,000-employee department is a place where crises often propagate like cancer cells. Easily the state’s largest, costliest and most complex bureaucracy, it serves about a million people a year who live in poverty or with psychological, developmental or physical disabilities. The most vulnerable are profoundly disabled, living in state institutions and reliant on the agency for their every need.
Usually, of course, the department’s work gets done without much notice, but every so often a mentally ill patient will wander off hospital grounds or kill himself or another patient. Budgets are chronically tight. And despite its size, human services is almost always the underdog, speaking for the homeless and handicapped against society’s most powerfully enfranchised: insurance and drug companies, or lawmakers who see the agency as an example of a welfare-state run amok. Bill Waldman, who led the department under three governors, calls it “the front line in the culture wars.”
“Sometimes, I just wanted to crawl into a hole and pull the sidewalk over me,” Waldman says of his tenure at the helm. It’s a position, he says, in which the commissioner can easily become numbed by the myriad needs of the individuals being served or succumb to the temptation to use the position and its perks as a launch pad for something else. Says Waldman, who started his career as a social worker in the hi-rise slums of 1960s Newark, “One of the challenges is to have a big heart, really care and do something.”
The first thing one notices about Jennifer Velez is her hair, a gusher of dark curls that flows to her shoulders like Jed Clampett’s Texas tea. It might take a little longer to detect her seeming lack of guile. Ask her where she sees her career taking her next, and she confesses to fantasizing that the head of the local food bank will retire just as she’s wrapping up in Trenton. To 42-year-old Velez, that’s a dream job.
Until a little more than a decade ago, a career in government had never occurred to her; she was too busy trying to outrun the poverty of her past. At Drew she chose economics as a major because she thought it was a ticket to a good-paying business career. She went into law because she needed more money to cover her college loans than early jobs in insurance and telecom paid. Those decisions led Velez—a formidable networker, by all accounts—to some enduring friendships. But she says the choices weren’t about who she really is.
Yet today, as she leans forward on a sofa in her corner office overlooking the re-tamed Delaware, discussing Medicare and a court ruling on housing for the developmentally disabled, it seems as though each of those choices was somehow channeling her toward the role she now serves in a job loaded with opportunity for heartbreak and conflict. Two nights earlier, after a typically long day in Trenton, she’d driven across the midsection of the state to meet with the parents of 50 developmentally disabled clients, some of them well into adulthood. The older parents, especially, were concerned with what kind of housing the state would provide their children as they themselves grew too infirm to provide care. “It’s a system that is stressed, underfunded and seemingly unresponsive to their needs, so that was tough,” Velez says of the meeting. “It’s difficult talking to parents in those circumstances, but it’s what you should be doing.”
Were her answers satisfactory?
“No. Not even a little bit,” she says flatly. “I said, ‘The system is very much in crisis.’ And it is in crisis. It’s been underfunded for a very long time.”
And even as she spoke on a September morning, her department was caught up in a high-profile battle in Congress over a proposed expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, otherwise known as S-CHIP. Just days later, President George W. Bush would veto the expansion bill, and New Jersey would file suit against the administration in federal court, challenging new, more stringent eligibility rules in an effort to keep delivering health care to some 30,000 kids and their parents whom the state considers needy.
“This is where it gets to be incredibly frustrating,” Ryan says of the job. “The issue is will they receive health care or not, and the conversation seven ozone layers up in Washington is dickering over how many children will be put to the sword.”
Velez’s mother had been a foster child and a victim of domestic violence. Velez was two years old when her parents divorced. She, her older sister and mother went on public assistance for a couple of years before her mother remarried, to a laborer whose itinerant jobs included work in a tire-retreading factory. Velez remembers him keeping his checkbook in two inks: black for when they were holding their own, and red when his accounts were overdrawn. “We knew from a very early age what overdraft protection was,” she says.
Always renters, the family spent many years living in a trailer park jammed between Giants Stadium and Teterboro Airport, where a female neighbor would frequently have one eye blackened from domestic abuse. Collecting fees on one of her three newspaper delivery routes, Velez sometimes would be invited into a house. If it was a single-family dwelling, she says, “I just thought, ‘You must be really rich.’”
She did well in a high school where only a handful of graduates went on to college each year, and a guidance counselor urged her to follow in the steps of another graduate who’d gone on to Drew. With no support system and no frame of reference, Velez did just that. Since she’d have to borrow heavily, she supposed, one unaffordable college was as good as another. She remembers arriving on campus on a rainy, muddy day in her stepfather’s powder blue Pinto and watching as some students emerged from luxury sedans. The culture shocks would keep coming. She didn’t know from Delbarton or Pingry, had no concept of a “private” school. As far as she knew, there were only public or parochial ones. Later she took a sales job at the Short Hills Mall; more culture shock followed.
College for Velez was a blur of industry—she worked at the front desk of the University Center, among many jobs, and was active in student government—and rapid self-realization. Though she couldn’t afford a car, she was able to swing the first semester of her senior year in Brussels on college loans; there, she immersed herself in studying Europe’s nascent effort to form a cohesive economic entity. Dean Paolo Cucchi, who hired Velez to babysit his toddler daughter, says that when she returned, she was very much the woman she is today. “By the time she was a senior, she gave every impression of being anything but naïve,” he says.
After graduating near the top of her class, Velez took a job as an insurance underwriter, which enabled her to cover her loan and rent payments and buy a car. But even as she was getting hold of the first rung on the career ladder, her older sister was experiencing spousal abuse, homelessness, a son in the juvenile justice system, welfare—the whole panoply of societal woes that welfare programs were set up to ameliorate.
By late 1997, Velez had earned a law degree from Rutgers School of Law–Newark, married and was working for two years as a labor lawyer at a big-name firm, then called Pitney, Hardin, Kipp & Szuch, now Day Pitney. She was making good money and great friends, but she found the work unfulfilling. One Sunday morning, she picked up The Star-Ledger and saw a story about the imminent retirement of Bill Waldman as human services commissioner.
“I read the article and thought, ‘Oh my god, just the work of that department…’” She says this with the rapture of a tweener imagining the ineffably cool life of Gwen Stefani.
“I said to my husband, ‘Read this article. Who does it sound like?’ He said, ‘That sounds like it could be you.’ I said, ‘Doesn’t that sound great?’”
And what was it about the work that struck her?
“He was in a position to help people every single day,” Velez says of Waldman.
Not that she wanted Waldman’s job, exactly. “That seemed to me unattainable—I didn’t even know what the path was to do that,” she says. “But I did think I should be in government.”
A phone call to a friend led to a spot in the legal counsel’s office of Governor Christine Todd Whitman. Velez stayed on through changes in the administration, and in 2003, she moved from the State House to the newly created Office of the Child Advocate.
What does the human services department mean to her?
“Oh, I love it,” she says without hesitation. “These are all programs that help and support people, hopefully to improve their economic assets and lift themselves out of poverty. It’s all I really care about—really, it is.”
She laughs. “Literally, night and day. I have two kids at home, and I really have to figure out the night part better. Really, I do.”
People who know her talk about her good judgment, her compassion, her selflessness. Waldman says Velez “is a little on the humble side.”
“She is probably the most dedicated person I’ve ever known in my life,” says Kristine Feher, a lawyer friend from Velez’s short stint as a barrister. “Who do you know in the public sector who, after 10 years, still believes they can make a difference? She views every single person she meets as someone who might become part of her life.”
And nobody doubts where it all comes from.
“I think Jen, when she closes her eyes at night, remembers vividly the schoolgirl living in a trailer park immersed in the disenfranchisement of poverty,” says Ryan, who counts Velez among his closest friends. “I think when she recalls that experience, it is both suffocating and liberating—suffocating in the sense that she has a very real sense of all the limitations that poverty forces on you, and liberating in the sense that it’s a compass, if you will, about how to better serve the next generation of kids whose families are living below the poverty line. That is her life’s work.”
At the end of 2006, Velez gave herself an overdue 40th-birthday present: a trip to Nicaragua, where she and a group of volunteer business leaders built rudimentary houses in a village without paved roads, clean water or electricity. “The people were so incredibly grateful and happy,” she says. “For a while, I couldn’t even talk about it without crying.”
Now, a year later, she’s having coffee on a brilliant fall morning in downtown Summit, the upmarket burg where she lives with her husband and children. Dressed in cuffed jeans, she says she’s looking forward to taking her eight-year-old son and six-year old daughter to a pumpkin carving contest at the local arboretum that afternoon. But sometime before the day is over, she has to get through the two- or three-hour task of completing a report to Governor Jon Corzine, who has asked all department heads for recommendations on where they can slash their budgets.
Balancing her work and home life, Velez concedes, is a struggle. She talks to her children about what she does, and why, in ways that relate the aims of her agency to the lives of kids they know. “They know all about S-CHIP and what the president is doing,” she says. “They know, ‘What if a mommy can’t afford to take her child to the doctor?’ They know what insurance is.
“It doesn’t make up for not being home for homework,” she says. “It doesn’t make up for not being home for dinner. So I have to get better because I tend to be a workaholic.”
Her husband, Rich Fiore, a pharmaceutical marketing executive who often works from home, helps keep the laundry and meals moving “without ego,” Velez says. She recalls meeting him for the first time in a bar and turning to ask a girlfriend, “‘Doesn’t he look like the kindest person in the world?’ And he does. And he is. He really is.”
Velez walks to her car, a Volvo sedan, and from the back seat she pulls out a framed photo, a group shot of prosperous Americans standing proudly in front of a cinderblock hut still damp at the joints with mortar. Velez says it broke her heart that she couldn’t go to Nicaragua again last year. But with S-CHIP and the budget…
Just then, a car pulls up with two elderly women inside. They need directions, and Velez starts to give them but then realizes the route is tricky, and anyway, there’s a simpler way to get them where they need to be.
“You know what? I’m going that way,” she tells the driver. “Just follow me.”
John T. Ward is an award-winning freelance writer based in Red Bank, N.J.
BIRTHDAY-PARTY HOSTESS:“She usually has 50 people coming, like, this weekend, and doesn’t know how she’s going to feed them,” says longtime pal Kristine Feher. The bashes have “a joint purpose: to make her kids happy, but also to bring her far-reaching circle of friends together.”
BARGAIN HUNTER: Occasionally shops at the Short Hills Mall, where she was once a store clerk, but loves a nearby consignment shop. “We’ll go to the ritziest store, and she’ll find the one thing that’s 90 percent off,” says Feher. “She pays full price for nothing.”
FOODIE: A vegetarian, she loves Indian and Mexican food.
CULTURE VULTURE: Asked to name a favorite book, film or singer, she takes a long pause and says, “I am such a bore.”
DREW RETURNEE: Visited campus last summer for a graduation ceremony where she cried for participants in a state program for the blind and visually impaired.
MOM: Her favorite way to relax is being with her kids, even if they’re bickering. “Hands down,” she says, “it is just the best.”