MONTPELIER — The battle in Montpelier over whether to impose a five-year lifetime cap on welfare benefits peaked this week when House lawmakers gave final approval to a budget that includes the new limits.
But the House proposal has drawn fire from both sides on this controversial issue. And while welfare-reform advocates say the House version doesn’t go far enough, advocates for low-income Vermonters say it will exact an undue toll on poor people.
Gov. Peter Shumlin in January upset liberal members of his own party when he rolled out a welfare-reform package that included the cap. Dave Yacovone, commissioner of the Department for Children and Family Services, pitched the changes as a needed stick for Reach Up beneficiaries who aren’t sufficiently motivated to find work.
“There’s a fine line between unable and unwilling,” Yacovone said Friday. “And the unwilling I think sometimes need a deadline.”
After initially running into strong headwinds in the Democratically controlled House, the concept has since gained traction. And on Friday, the majority caucus voted overwhelmingly in support of a budget that includes the new limits.
Critics of the House plan, however, say the time limits are illusory, rendered meaningless by carefully worded language that would undermine the policy goals they aim to achieve.
Under language passed Friday, families who exceed the 60-month limit will get to retain what is known as the “child-only” grant — the portion of the Reach Up grant designed to provide a stable living environment for children in the household.
Rep. Anne Donahue, a Northfield Republican, said the child-only grant account accounts for the overwhelming bulk of the overall benefit. For example, she said, a Reach Up grant for a family of two — one parent, one child — is $536 to $560 per month.
The child-only portion of that grant, she said, is $434 to $459. The approximately $100 difference, according to Donahue, won’t likely engender the behavioral impacts the time limits are intended to motivate.
“The language in the ... bill is not a cap,” Donahue said during a debate on the House floor. “It continues financial assistance to the family on an unlimited basis.”
Yacovone said he shares her concern.
“I’m worried that it would not change behavior in the way that I think it needs to be changed,” Yacovone said.
Others in the Statehouse, however, said even moving to the child-only grant is too punitive.
Rep. John Moran, a Wardsboro Democrat, offered an amendment Thursday that would have eliminated the time limits for families that have been compliant with all the Reach Up rules. The amendment would have spared the approximately 700 families that are scheduled to see their benefits reduced in May 2014 if the House plan is passed into law.
In a body with 96 Democrats, the amendment won fewer than 40 votes, prompting opponents of the time limits to register their dismay. The time limits have been criticized by dozens of advocacy groups, including the Vermont Commission on Women, which said the proposal would unfairly target single mothers.
“As a woman, as a mother, and as a Democrat, I am offended,” said Rep. Kristy Spengler, a Colchester Democrat. “It is morally wrong to focus our time and energy examining ways to extract funds from low-income Vermonters.”
Chris Curtis, a staff attorney at Vermont Legal Aid and forceful critic of the 60-month cap, said lawmakers shouldn’t underestimate the impact of a 20-percent reduction in the Reach Up benefit.
“When you’re living at that level of poverty, that would be the difference between paying the bills and getting the rent in on time or not,” Curtis said.
Curtis said the plan approved by the House marks a drastic improvement from the one put forth by the Shumlin administration earlier this year, which would have eliminated benefits entirely for people iexceeding the 60-month limit. The Shumlin plan would have also taken effect beginning this October.
“But for many people the (House version) will just put them out of the fryer and into the frying pan,” Curtis said. “And our concern is that many of them are still going to end up getting burned.”
Erhard Mahnke, executive director of the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition, said the House plan is “substantially” improved from the governor’s proposal. But he said the Vermont State Housing Authority counts more than 600 Reach Up beneficiaries among its tenants.
Any reductions in their benefits from the state, Mahnke said, will mean lower rents being paid to the housing authority, drying up resources that have already been sapped by the federal sequester and other budget cuts.
Mahnke said the effects will also be felt on nonprofit housing agencies which will be forced to evict tenants who are unable to make rent.
Mahnke said that in Maine, which instituted the 60-month cap last year, housing advocates have watched the number of homeless spike as many residents lose the only source of income that had been keeping them in housing.
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