• The right steps
    March 18,2014

    Crossover day officially marks the midway point of the legislative session. Now the real politicking begins. Fortunately, some action aimed at helping Vermonters has already gained the proper traction.

    At the beginning of the session, the governor announced new poverty reduction initiatives as part of his budget address. In part, he announced about $2.5 million in state money, which, when matched, would yield more than $4 million in combined state and federal funds. The bulk of the money went to housing — doubling the Vermont rental subsidy and holding emergency shelters harmless from sequester cuts — Reach Up and support for early education.

    In addition, lawmakers have been considering three bills to “address housing, hunger and to reward hard work,” as some advocates have characterized the trio. All three bills were passed out by the House Human Services Committee last week on strong votes. That is encouraging news.

    H.620 is legislation that would hold harmless families who received overpayments in food stamps as a result of agency errors. The state is under sanction for errors in its 3Squares VT program. Some families who received small overpayments that may have gone on unbeknownst to them for years suddenly received notices declaring they have to pay the money back.

    While the state does allow repayments to be done in small increments, the prevailing feeling is that the families did nothing wrong and trusted the state to get their benefits correct. Low-income families cannot afford bills incurred as a result of the state’s failure to accurately calculate benefits. While it is a federal requirement that the money be repaid, the legislation would require the state to cover the cost for the three years the state has been under sanction for high error rates.

    In addition, H.699 reduces the amount of income demanded from homeless families who access temporary shelter through the general assistance program — from 50 percent to no more than 30 percent. Current rules dictate that families are asked to pay half of any income they receive to cover their shelter costs.

    Vermont already faces a serious gap between wages and housing costs. A common rule of thumb is that families should not pay more than a third of their income in housing costs in order to maintain a stable housing budget. That the state’s rules require homeless Vermonters to pay half their income is contrary to sound public housing policy. Certain advocates are pushing to make zero the amount to access temporary shelter.

    Lastly, H.790 would help families on Reach Up earn and save more. For years, various advocates and policy wonks have talked about the so-called benefits cliff, or the disincentive that occurs when people receiving public benefits go to work and suddenly find themselves working longer and harder for less because every dime made means a dime taken away in benefits. This legislation addresses the benefit cliff by making work more attractive.

    Currently, someone on the Reach Up program may save up to only $2,000 in assets before losing eligibility. This sends a message to low-income families that saving is bad. That’s the wrong message. State policy should encourage low-income families to save and create their own personal safety nets to help stabilize precarious financial situations while helping to keep them in the workforce. The bill more than doubles what families are allowed to save — up to $5,000 before they lose eligibility for the program.

    Taken together with the governor’s poverty reduction budget priorities, these bills represent real progress in combating poverty in Vermont. The House Human Services Committee deserves credit for advancing all three bills before crossover. And the Legislature should act decisively to endorse the work that complements the administration’s other poverty reduction priorities.

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