During the recently concluded legislative session, the Legislature and governor made real progress in the effort to lift low-income Vermonters out of poverty. For Gov. Peter Shumlin, reforms enacted this year marked a welcome reversal from the measures he unsuccessfully pushed the year before targeting for benefits for the poor.
The success of anti-poverty measures this year also were a success for advocates and legislators who saw that the time had arrived for concrete steps to redress the growing inequality in the state and nation that has made it harder for people to climb out of poverty and to avoid the debilitating social pathologies that poverty encourages.
One of the important steps approved by the Legislature was the bill addressing the problem of the benefit cliff. This is the problem that arises when a person receiving benefits receives a raise but finds that increased income will actually cost more in lost benefits, thus reducing overall income. The bill increases the level of income and assets that will not be counted in calculating the limit that triggers a reduction in benefits.
The bill will also extend the time some recipients are eligible for child-care subsidies. Without assistance in paying for child care, going back to work is a losing proposition for some low-income workers.
Other measures approved this year included these:
n An increase of the state rental subsidy from $500,000 to $1 million to help people move to affordable housing.
n $300,000 in grants for emergency shelters.
n An additional $650,000, combined with about $500,000 in federal money, for substance abuse and mental health counseling for families in Reach Up, the state’s welfare-to-work program.
n An additional $800,000 for early child education, matched with money from the federal government.
n A change in policy holding families harmless, at least in part, when they receive excessive benefits because of government error.
n A limit on the percentage of income that homeless families must contribute for emergency shelter.
About 6,360 households with about 16,000 people participate in the state’s Reach Up program, and these modest changes could make a huge difference in the prospects for many individuals. This is a small percentage of Vermonters, but their needs absorb significant state resources, and their suffering is real.
Consider the family living on limited income that loses its home and ends up in a homeless shelter. A temporary dilemma can become a personal disaster that is costly to the well-being of children, to the health and future of adults, and to the coffers of the state unless timely and targeted benefits are available to get people on their feet.
Another important measure passed by the Legislature was the increase in the minimum wage to $10.50 by 2018. Conservatives say raising the minimum wage is a job killer, but studies have shown that higher wages improve job stability, thus moving workers away from the edge of disaster. Greater stability helps employers and employees.
The political and social context for these reforms is new. The country is increasingly aware that poverty wages have yielded huge fortunes for a narrow elite of Americans while consigning millions to the margins where they are forced to avail themselves of government assistance. Thus, the food stamps and child-care subsidies that low-wage workers receive may be seen actually as a subsidy for the extravagant fortunes of those who profit by keeping corporate costs low.
The Vermont Legislature has begun to recognize these realities, and though Shumlin is generally solicitous of the demands of business, he has seen that, politically, times have changed and balancing his budget on the backs of the poor will not fly.
But the advantages of helping to lift up the poor are more than political. The state as a whole will become more prosperous as struggling low-income Vermonters find the means to take their place as productive citizens. The state has taken important steps this year to make that happen.
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