The Vermont Legislature is facing a difficult challenge this year in charting a course that diverges in significant ways from the program offered by the governor whom they had considered an ally.
It is not clear that anyone has an explanation for Gov. Peter Shumlin’s proposals that seem to represent an outright assault on the poor. The demands of the budget don’t explain it. There are other ways to balance the budget. The quest for program efficiency doesn’t explain it. Shumlin’s proposals promise greater chaos and inefficiency.
Set aside the explanation for a moment and consider the ways that Shumlin’s program threatens the well-being of low-income residents. His attack has two components.
First, he intends to strip away state support for the earned-income tax credit, which is crucial income support for working Vermonters. He plans to use the savings to broaden access to child care and early childhood education. It is a worthy goal, but it comes at the cost of undermining one of our most effective anti-poverty programs. Workers who have no use for a child care benefit but who see their income support decline will be the ones who suffer most directly.
The second prong of Shumlin’s attack comes in his plan to impose time limits on the state’s Reach Up program. At present Reach Up serves about 6,500 low-income families, often single women with children. The program combines financial support with the assistance of a case worker to help the recipient put together a plan to find employment.
Time limits on welfare have as their justification the idea that unless they are kicked off the welfare rolls, recipients will languish in a state of dependency. The record in Vermont shows this is not the case.
Fifty-three percent of people in the program graduate to employment within 12 months. People want to find work. The median time people are in the program is 18 months. Of the 6,500 families in the state program, only 270 families have been receiving benefits for five years.
Shumlin’s proposal would create a time limit of three years. Participants who hit that limit would be forced off the program. If they have not found a job a year later, they would be allowed back in the program for another year, after which they would be booted off again. After another year searching for a job, they would be allowed back in the program for a final year. In all they would have 60 nonconsecutive months of benefits.
Of immediate concern is what would happen this October if the Legislature were to pass Shumlin’s proposal. At that point 1,188 families will have hit the 36-month wall and will immediately be without Reach Up support. The potential for family chaos and hardship is significant, all of which would serve as an additional impediment to solving the employment problem.
Advocates for low-income Vermonters say that Maine, which has an arch-conservative governor, imposed time limits on its welfare program, and the result was the sudden expulsion of 4,000 families from the program, many of whom had to resort to emergency general assistance, which meant the state did not save as much money as it was hoping to save.
Shumlin is no arch-conservative. It is hard to see why he would seek to introduce hardship among people who already have their hands full — raising kids, keeping a car running, finding work, finding housing. Some Reach Up participants fear that if they are kicked out of the program, they will lose their subsidized housing. Shumlin’s proposal could begin a spiral downward for many people.
Shumlin’s welfare reform is expected to save $6 million the first year and $7.2 million the second year. It’s not worth the hardship it would create. Reach Up is working. It is helping Vermonters with the job training and support they need to move from dependency toward self-reliance. Vermont is not so hard-pressed it needs to unravel its successful programs.
As lawmakers puzzle out Shumlin’s motives, they may wonder if he is trying to burnish some sort of conservative or moderate political profile, in the manner of Howard Dean. It’s not a good enough reason.
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