Budget pressures at the Department for Children and Families led lawmakers and administration officials to cut welfare benefits for 860 Vermont households. Advocates for low-income Vermonters, however, say the welfare program is running well under budget, and they say the state should now restore the cuts.
Christopher Curtis is a staff attorney at Vermont Legal Aid. As an advocate for low-income clients, Curtis follows budget deliberations in Montpelier closer than most. When administration officials unveiled newly updated fiscal documents last week, Curtis took notice.
“I’ll be honest, my jaw almost hit the floor when I saw the amount of savings in this program,” Curtis says.
The program Curtis is referring to is Reach Up, a welfare program for poor Vermonters. According to the administration, lower-than-projected caseloads have Reach Up running more than $4 million under budget.
So why is Curtis so awestruck? When elected officials approved controversial reductions in Reach Up benefits earlier this year, they identified the need to save $1.6 million in the program as a key reason for the cuts. Curtis says the new budget projections blow that rationale out of the water.
“What we learned at budget adjustment is that this cut to very poor Vermont families who have an adult with a disability in them are completely unnecessary,” Curtis says. “This is nothing more than a poor tax levied on Vermont families least able to afford it.”
Ken Schatz, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, says it isn’t that easy. Schatz as recently as last week said the changes stemmed at least in part from a quote “directive” to “find some budget savings.
But he says there were other policy reasons for the change as well. The cuts affect only families in which an adult family member is on Supplemental Security Income, a federal program for disabled people who can’t work. Until now, income from SSI didn’t figure into the formula used to determine Reach Up benefits. And Schatz says it’s virtually the only source of income that doesn’t count against Reach Up grants.
“This was done in part to address parity and fairness issues for families receiving Reach Up,” Schatz says.
Schatz also says that as result of the Reach Up reductions, affected families will see increases in their food stamps benefits of as much as $80 a month.
South Hero Rep. Mitzi Johnson, the Democratic chairwoman of the House Committee on Appropriations, says that just because Reach Up benefits are running below expectation doesn’t necessarily mean lawmakers should use the unspent money to restore the cuts.
Gov. Peter Shumlin earlier this month called for an additional $8 million in spending on child-protection services at DCF. Johnson says that money has to come from somewhere.
“We don’t necessarily look at one little silo at a time, because it doesn’t leave us any room to shift resources to where there are strong trends in other parts of the budget,” Johnson says.
Michelle Fay, associate director of Voices for Vermont’s Children, says the increasing child-protection caseloads that spawned the governor’s $8 million spending proposal are largely a function of increasing rates of child poverty. Fay says the need for critical resources in one area of state government shouldn’t become reason to institute cuts in another.
“The attempt to kind of play the money shell game, and move things kind of – well, we really want to invest in child protection, which of course we’re really supportive of, but not at the expense of the most vulnerable families in the state,” Fay says.
Johnson says the appropriations committee will consider its options with regard to Reach Up when it reconvenes next month.