The Vermont Child Poverty Council was established by the Legislature in 2007 and charged with developing a plan to cut child poverty in half in 10 years. The Legislature recognized that the plan had to be long term. A problem as persistent as poverty cannot be solved overnight.
Voices for Vermont’s Children has served on the council from the start, working with council members to collect information about the circumstances of Vermont’s poor and low-income children and their families and to develop poverty-reduction recommendations that were published in our January 2009 report.
When we began our work, we knew some things about child poverty in Vermont, but one of the most important things we all came to understand was how poverty impacts a family, especially their ability to see past their current situation and have hope. We also learned that as a state we were making a difference for these families. We wrote in our 2009 report:
We have created public policies that make Vermont a better place for low-income children to grow, learn and live. It is not an accident that children are better off here — it is because policymakers have made a commitment to improving the lives of children. This commitment can be seen in Vermont’s low income tax credit for working families, our child care system, and other programs that support low income families. ... It is clear that both federal and state policies can make a difference when society makes a commitment to helping families. However, as well as we are doing, the current fragile situation of Vermont’s kids suggests that we need to do more.
Now, only four years later, it seems we are ignoring some of the important lessons we learned from the council’s work.
Perhaps most troubling is that we have forgotten that stigma hurts. We heard over and over that the stigma associated with being poor is a difficult obstacle to overcome. Yet, now our administration has stigmatized one of the most effective poverty-fighting policies we have — the earned income tax credit (EITC).
The EITC by definition is available only for people who work — who earn income. The majority are families with children. It is a tax policy designed to offset regressive taxes that unfairly affect the working poor. It makes our tax system fairer by allowing low-wage earners to keep more of what they earn. It rewards people who work.
The good news is that the governor has proposed a significant investment in child care, specifically to increase funding for Vermont’s child care financial assistance program, an investment that would help many working families. Unfortunately, he has suggested that the state cut the EITC to pay for it. The governor’s proposal would move us a half step forward, but it would immediately move us three steps backward in our efforts to reduce child poverty.
We appreciate the work already completed in the Vermont House, which has rejected the governor’s EITC cut, proposed an alternative, and took an important first step in funding the child care financial assistance program. But as the end of the 2013 legislative session draws near, the House, Senate and administration will negotiate the final budget and revenue package for next year. As they complete their work I hope that our elected leaders will remember the lessons that came from the work of the Vermont Child Poverty Council. We wrote in 2009:
The council recognizes the challenges presented by the current economic crisis facing our nation and state. These challenges will make it more difficult — and at the same time more urgent — to meet our goals. Even with the budget difficulties we now face, the council is clear that we remain committed to pursuing aggressively our mission of reducing child poverty.
We cannot afford to move backward if we are going to succeed in reducing child poverty. Now more than ever is the time for our policymakers to think about the future and invest in all Vermont’s children and families.
Carlen Finn is executive director of Voices for Vermont’s Children.
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