• Welfare reform: Maine’s example alarms Vt. advocates
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     | March 03,2013
     

    MONTPELIER — The state of Maine last year imposed the same 60-month cap on welfare benefits that Gov. Peter Shumlin wants to institute in Vermont. But advocates say a new study tracking Maine families impacted by the time limits confirms their worst fears about what the policy change would do to poor Vermonters.

    Shumlin’s attempts at welfare reform this year include new lifetime limits on eligibility for a program called “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families” or TANF. Also known as “Reach Up,” the program aims to cover about half the “basic needs” — food, clothing, shelter — for families and individuals living in poverty.

    Chris Curtis, staff attorney at Vermont Legal Aid, is among the low-income advocates urging lawmakers to reject the Democratic governor’s proposal. He said a new study out of the University of Maine shows just how devastating the cuts would be.

    “The report just proves that time limits don’t work, and that the jobs don’t magically appear for folks,” Curtis said. “Vermont can’t afford destabilizing families by taking away assistance that keeps them in housing and gives them opportunities for jobs.”

    The study, performed by a professor of social work, tracks only 54 of the roughly 1,500 families that were booted off TANF in Maine.

    But Christine Hastedt, public policy director at Maine Equal Justice Partners, which paid for the study, said the results are stark.

    The median monthly income of families that lost assistance was $260, or $3,120 per year — less than 20 percent of the federal poverty level.

    Nearly 70 percent had visited a food bank, more than one-third had their phone, gas or electricity shut off, and another 17 percent reported running out of heating fuel. Nearly 15 percent of families surveyed were either evicted or lost their homes, and more than 9 percent ended up in homeless shelters.

    “The findings of the report are very consistent with the experience of the people who have called us, and that is that many of them are suffering very severe material hardship,” Hastedt said by phone last week.

    If the Shumlin proposal is approved, according to numbers compiled by VTDigger.org., 1,188 families in Vermont will lose their benefits on Oct. 1. Of the 3,772 people affected, according to VTDigger, nearly 2,400 are children.

    David Yacovone, commissioner of the Vermont Department for Children and Families, said the experiment in Maine doesn’t offer a useful comparison.

    “There’s no standardization around the county, and in many states, including Maine, they say, ‘you’ve reached the time limit and goodbye,’” he said. “That’s not what Vermont is doing.”

    For one thing, Yacovone said, Shumlin is pairing the time limits with the addition of $17 million in childcare subsidies. For low-income parents, he said, that will help solve a child-care dilemma that is among the chief obstacles to gainful employment for many of the families that will hit the five-year benefit limit.

    Additionally, Yacovone said, the Agency of Human Services will work with each timed-out family to connect them with the range of other services available to them, from food stamps to workforce training.

    “We’re not just saying, ‘sayonara, good luck, you’re on your own.’ And that’s why we’re far more comfortable with the proposal than people that are cherry-picking research,” Yacovone said.

    “Maine didn’t do it right,” he added. “If you are in our program and it’s time to leave, we’re going to give you significant child-care benefits, and you can come back to us for case management.”

    Rep. Ann Pugh, a South Burlington Democrat and chairwoman of the House Committee on Human Services, said the child-care benefits on which Shumlin has relied to defend his proposal are fantasy.

    Shumlin wants to fund the new subsidies by reducing an “earned-income tax credit” or EITC that provides a combination of tax credits and cash benefits to the 44,000 lowest-wage workers in Vermont.

    “A plan to pay for child-care subsidies by using what is, in effect, a tax increase on low-income working Vermonters is not a place I’m willing to go to,” Pugh said.

    Shumlin and Yacovone said money spent on the $25 million EITC program would yield far greater dividends if invested in child care.

    But Pugh isn’t alone in her opposition. House Speaker Shap Smith all but declared the reduction in the EITC dead Friday, saying, “I would not anticipate it is going to be a major part of any bill that will come out of the House.”

    Without an alternative revenue source at the ready, opposition to Shumlin’s funding mechanism has cast into doubt prospects for the boosted child-care subsidies.

    Pugh said the lack of affordable child care is one of only several hurdles facing the comparatively small number of families that reach the five-year limit. The median time spent on the program is 18 months, and Pugh said that statistic undercuts the notion that the system somehow breeds complacency among it beneficiaries.

    “The people who are in this program for more than five years are a very small minority, and there are some very legitimate reasons they find themselves in the circumstances they do,” she said.

    In the Maine study, more than 40 percent of the respondents had less than a high school education; 39 percent reported having a disability, and more than a quarter had a child or other family member with an impairment that interfered with their ability to get and keep a job.

    “We’ve taken testimony from the Department of Labor and others, and while there may be jobs out there, the people who are on Reach Up assistance don’t have the skills necessarily to get them,” Pugh said.

    All told, employment rates among the population that saw its benefits eliminated in Maine increased by only 7 percent, according to the study. Curtis said he’s convinced Vermont will experience similar results, Yacovone’s reassurances notwithstanding.

    “The biggest barrier to employment in Vermont isn’t child care, it’s transportation,” Curtis said.

    The Maine study found that more than a quarter of households had lost transportation for more than a month after being terminated from TANF.

    “Desperately poor people who live in rural areas don’t have the means to get to a job, or to a child-care facility for that matter,” Curtis said.

    The Shumlin plan would mean about $7 million in savings, money Yacovone said would be reinvested in more effective poverty-fighting initiatives. Hastedt, however, said that in Maine, at least, the savings have been illusory.

    Demand for temporary housing benefits quickly outstripped supply at the state level, according to Hastedt, resulting in new pressures on municipalities.

    Portland, Bangor, Lewiston and other Maine cities had to increase their emergency housing budgets in the wake of the TANF reforms, in some cases by as much as 100 percent, according to a report in the Portland Press Herald.

    Shumlin has pitched his plan as a “compassionate” solution to a “cruel” system that discourages poor Vermonters from improving their lot.

    “If I can help significantly improve the quality of life for kids by doing far more to help parents get work, I’m all for it,” Yacovone said. “We want to break the cycle, and we think that by dramatically increasing this childcare benefit, and by really working with people to help get them jobs, it will be a pathway out of poverty for children.”

    Pugh, who emphasized that she’s speaking for herself and not on behalf of her committee, said it’s hard to see how Shumlin’s plan will help the 2,400 children who will be affected by the elimination of their parents’ benefits.

    “People who are really poor don’t really have a voice in this building (the Statehouse),” Pugh said. “Are there things that need to be changed? I’m sure there are. But to overhaul a major public assistance program in four weeks does not make good sense.”

    peter.hirschfeld@rutlandherald.com

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