Vermont’s Reach Up program provides temporary cash assistance to Vermonters with children in need. The program is largely successful, graduating most participants within 12 to 18 months. The federal government covers up to 60 months of assistance to participants who, in exchange for the benefit, engage in work requirements or other work-related activities (unless, for example, they have a deferment due to poor health or an infant child). States have flexibility to provide additional assistance thereafter, and Vermont has historically provided its own lifeline for our neighbors in need.
The Shumlin administration plans to change that. It wants to cut families with children off Reach Up at 36 months retroactively (with up to 24 additional months nonconsecutively). The Vermont House of Representatives, to its credit, rejected that plan, but it did impose a lifetime 60-month limit with certain exceptions, and with grants available for children after the limit.
One of the interesting questions swirling around the whole debate is how the administration came to its conclusion that its proposed policy is warranted. One would think that in order to make the case for substantial public policy change to any important program there would be identification of a problem, analysis of the likely outcomes, and a recitation of the facts in support of the proposed change. The burden is on the administration to prove its case, but it has utterly failed to do so.
In fact, the evidence shows that arbitrary time limits lead to poor outcomes for families with children and result in cost shifts to other areas of the budget, to municipalities and to local service providers. Maine imposed arbitrary caps last year, and families there experienced severe hardships including hunger (70 percent were relegated to food shelves), housing problems (15 percent evicted, 9 percent homeless), and utility shutoffs (35 percent). Municipalities there are experiencing massive cost shifts as eligible families seek general assistance.
In Vermont, service providers who work with Reach Up participants are increasingly alarmed. More than 30 organizations have expressed opposition to arbitrary time limits on Reach Up participants. Yet, without data and with growing controversy the administration insists that cutting off some, or all, participants who reach the cap — either in whole, or in part — is a good thing.
There are far more questions about these controversial proposals than answers. After all, lawmakers now concede there will be no savings in the next fiscal year and few additional supports for the poorest families. So, why the rush?
Another son of Putney, Gov. George Aiken, also once put poverty and public assistance front and center in his inaugural address. But he took an entirely different approach. He refused to move on welfare reform until he had all the information at his disposal:
“Believing that the prosperity and security of a community or a state is in fact a reflection of the prosperity and security of the people living therein, it seems fitting that the first problem to which I should call your attention is that which has to do with guarding the health, strengthening the mind and character, and correcting the wayward tendencies of those of our people who are less fortunate than most of us. These activities are grouped under the heading of Public Welfare. ...
“I confess I do not feel competent to make detailed recommendations at this time. ... I would request that this Legislature authorize a committee ... or a special committee to be appointed by the governor, and with an appropriation to enable it to make a real study, not only of our state institutions but of our entire welfare system.”
Aiken was correct to take a cautious approach and review the entire system before taking action. The controversial policies that have thus far been proposed are rushed, proven not to work in other states, and will have serious and lasting human and economic consequences.
There may be things we can do to improve the program, but it will take time and resources to identify how best to help the hardest-to-serve families. Simply cutting families with children off from assistance is not the answer.
The administration and lawmakers should pause and reflect on Aiken’s wisdom before making any changes to the Reach Up program. The stakes are too high for poor Vermonters and their children for policymakers to gamble with their lives.
Christopher J. Curtis is a staff attorney at Vermont Legal Aid Inc.
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