House welfare benefit cuts full of loopholes, critics say
MONTPELIER – The battle in Montpelier over whether to impose a five-year lifetime cap on welfare benefits peaked Thursday night when House lawmakers gave preliminary approval to a budget that includes the new limits. But while the 60-month cap may now appear in legislation, many lawmakers say caveats tacked onto the provision will have no practical effect on the length of time for which families can receive benefits.
Gov. Peter Shumlin in January upset liberal members of his own party when he rolled out a welfare-reform package that included the cap. The concept, however, has since gained steam on in the Democratically controlled House, where the majority party voted in overwhelming numbers for the budget Thursday.
Rep. Anne O'Brien, a Richmond Democrat, said the deadline will motivate individuals receiving “Reach Up” benefits to find work, or compel caseworkers to find alternative programs that better suit their needs. But Rep. Anne Donahue, a Northfield Republican, said the time limits are illusory, rendered meaningless by carefully worded language that would undermine the policy goals they aim to achieve.
“The language in the ... bill is not a cap,” Donahue said during a debate on the House floor. “It continues financial assistance to the family on an unlimited basis.” Under language passed by the House Thursday, families that exceed the 60-month limit will get to retain what is own as the “child-only” grant – the portion of the Reach Up grant designed to provide a stable living environment for children in the household.
But Donahue said the child-only grant account accounts for the overwhelming bulk of the overall benefit. For example, she said, a Reach Up grant for a family of two – one parent, one child – is between $536 and $560 per month. The child-only portion o that grant, she said, is between $434 and $459.
The approximately $100 difference, according to Donahue, won't likely to engender the behavioral impacts the time limits are intended to motivate. Donahue said the bill also contains a clause that would allow the commissioner of the Department of Children and Families to waive the 60-month time limits in instances where families are “in need of continued financial assistance.”
Donahue said that anyone kicked off Reach Up would, by definition, be in need of financial assistance. She said lawyers for the Legislature told the House Committee on Human Services that the waiver language was so broad that the commissioner would be legally required to renew the benefits of any Reach Up beneficiary who appealed their removal from the program after hitting the five-year limit.
Other lawmakers, meanwhile, said the 60-month cap, even with its mitigating language, was too harsh on low-income families.
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