Split committee backs plan to cap welfare benefits
By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau | March 24,2013
MONTPELIER — In a split vote that reflects the divisive nature of the proposal, the House Committee on Human Services last week issued a surprise endorsement of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s plan to impose a five-year lifetime cap on welfare benefits.
While a majority of Democrats on the committee sided against the governor, four Republicans provided the swing bloc needed to deliver a 7-4 vote of confidence late Thursday. The caps would most immediately affect the nearly 1,200 families already in excess of the 60-month limit.
David Yacovone, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, said the Shumlin administration is encouraged to see lawmakers getting behind reforms to a program — called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — designed to help poor people afford basics like food, clothing and shelter.
“We’re glad to see they appreciate that the ‘t’ in TANF stands for temporary and not timeless,” Yacovone said Friday.
Committee members opposed to the plan were strident in their dissent. Rep. Ann Pugh, the Democratic chairwoman of the House Committee on Human Services, said families on the program aren’t necessarily at fault for the circumstances impeding their upward mobility.
If people are following the rules of the program, which include demonstrable efforts to secure employment, they shouldn’t be penalized, she said.
“I find it morally unjust to punish families who are following all the rules, who are doing everything we ask them to do,” Pugh said. “It is a failure of society that these people are unable to advance, and we all share in that failing. To punish just this one group is to me unjust.”
Rep. Matt Trieber, one of three Democrats on the committee to support the plan, said the time limits are designed to help families, not hurt them. He said the House proposal would bolster case management for families whose benefits are about to be cut off.
Helping families overcome the transportation, childcare and education issues thwarting their success, Trieber said, will be of far greater help than a monthly check.
Christopher Curtis, a staff attorney at Vermont Legal Aid, said there’s no indication that the state has any plan to offer those supports.
Shumlin paired his reform proposal with a $17 million increase in child care subsidies for low-income parents. But the House version of the budget has pared that number down to $3.3 million.
Curtis’ organization was opposed to the time limits even with the new subsidies. Without them, he said, the adverse impacts on poor families will be even more pronounced.
Of the more than 3,700 individuals who would be affected by the time limits, nearly 2,400 are children.
Trieber said the House Committee on Human Services has made some key changes to the Shumlin proposal that will cushion the impacts on families.
The Shumlin proposal would have suspended benefits beginning in October. House lawmakers will propose a grace period that extends benefits until May or June 2014.
The House is also adding a list of “deferments” for which families could stay on the program for longer than five years.
Victims of domestic violence, for instance, wouldn’t see time spent on TANF in the aftermath of an assault count against the time limits. The House also wants deferrals for mental health, substance abuse and the year following a pregnancy.
Their changes would eliminate all of the fiscal year 2014 budget savings associated with the Shumlin plan, which would have shaved $5.9 million from next year’s Human Services budget.
Rep. Ann O’Brien, a Richmond Democrat and member of the House Committee on Appropriations, worked with the Human Services Committee on the proposal. She said that if someone has been on welfare for five years and still can’t find work, then the program clearly isn’t working for them.
“It’s not a good thing for children to be on a program that keeps their families in deep poverty,” O’Brien said. “If you’re not successful after five years, we have to ask ‘why is that?’ And then look for better ways to improve the situation.”
She said many of the case managers working with poor families have voiced support for the idea.
“There was genuine support for the deadline, because they believe that will be helpful,” O’Brien said.
Yacovone said the lack of savings in the House plan is problematic.
“I’ll be interested in seeing how they achieve those savings,” Yacovone said. “I wish them better luck finding it than we had.”
O’Brien said a reduction in the projected caseload for next year will offset about $2 million, and that the House Appropriations Committee will find ways to accommodate the remaining $4 million.
Curtis, however, said evidence from other states that have imposed hard caps shows that new costs will only begin appearing elsewhere in the Human Services budget, when desperate families begin showing up at homeless shelters and food shelves.