Recently, the governor and the secretary of the Agency of Human Services have challenged what we hold dear as Vermonters. Our passion for practicality and frugality stresses our need to spend money well. Compassion for our neighbors asserts our preparedness to offer a comforting hand to those in need and a helping hand to those able to take on more.
Gov. Peter Shumlin has declared that for all the money we’ve spent, we have little to show. And Secretary Doug Racine pronounces the state can do little to eradicate poverty. The governor is right; the secretary is wrong.
Vermonters have spent billions on the war on poverty — the budget for AHS has grown from $863 million to $2.2 billion over the past 14 years (nearly 7 percent per year) and comprises 42 percent of all state spending, and this doesn’t include the earned income tax credit or property tax relief programs.
Vermonters have invested generously — better supported now than in past decades — but our highest goal of lifting our neighbors out of poverty remains unmet.
Recently, Racine said, “To go out and find a pot of money of $15 (million) or $20 million out of existing revenues isn’t going to happen this year. I would like to and I know (Shumlin) would like to. We need to figure out how we are going to do it, and we aren’t there yet.”
Politicians can no longer “find a pot of money” and should no longer spend that money without providing measurable outcomes. Vermont has failed those who invest and those who need the programs — the facts don’t lie.
The 2012 U.S. census best articulates the situation: 11.2 percent, or 70,100 Vermonters, live in poverty, and 15.7 percent, or 98,300, live at or below 125 percent of poverty (equals $14,363 per individual and $29,438 per family of four). The 2000 census informs us that 10 percent (60,900) of Vermonters lived in poverty and 14.6 percent (90,175) lived at or below 125 percent of poverty. While I’ll acknowledge that poverty rates move up and down with the economy, it’s clear that efforts over the past 10 years to move Vermonters out of poverty have failed.
Vermont’s current practice for helping Vermonters does not allow for collaborative thoughtful focus to the challenges they face each day. Rather, Vermont’s system is one of “stovepipes” (or silos), which doesn’t allow for focused investments to be made to appropriate benefits, such as food, energy, child care, health care, mental health services and so many others. “Stovepipes” often exacerbate inefficiencies and prevent successful management of benefits to lead Vermonters out of poverty.
Vermont can do better, and Vermonters deserve better.
Unless reforms to public policy in this area are made to address this arcane system, politicians will continue to camouflage the larger failure and only marginal success will be made to provide our neighbors the help they deserve.
For the past two years, Campaign for Vermont has been advocating for a “shared view of the client” — wrapping benefits around effective goals. Further, Campaign for Vermont urges policymakers to develop performance-based measures for AHS and for any organizations contracted by AHS.
These strategies will provide state managers, the Legislature and advocates with clear, measurable results, eliminate barriers to success (eligibility cliffs), and promote a clearer path to financial security for every generation.
Politicians have an obligation to ask tough questions: Where and how well is the money being spent, and are they reducing the number living in poverty and just getting by from one paycheck to the next?
Leadership requires information and goals to allow for good management. We are all in this together, but if the state keeps doing what it’s been doing, we’ll keep getting what we’ve been getting.
Vermonters have a right to a government that will deliver on its promises, not gives up on them.
Bruce Lisman established Campaign for Vermont. He lives in Shelburne.
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