Poverty initiatives a good start
New Year’s Eve has come and gone. With it, a multitude of “resolutions” were made; some will be kept, some broken. This year, Gov. Peter Shumlin made an important resolution to invest in poverty reduction programs that work. As temperatures drop and homeless shelters fill up, that is a resolution we should welcome and help him keep.
The governor’s new poverty reduction initiative is designed to alleviate homelessness, stabilize families, and provide more child care and early childhood education opportunities. Vermonters should support these smart investments because they help our neighbors in need and reduce demand in other areas of the human services budget.
The poverty reduction package comes to about $2.5 million in new state funding.
With federal matching dollars the total investment will top $4 million. In addition, a permanent all-volunteer council will advise the governor on poverty reduction strategies. The council spent months as an ad hoc body of low-income service providers and anti-poverty advocates working collaboratively on a set of recommendations requested by the governor. The governor listened and acted decisively to include them in his budget.
The recommendations of the council dovetail with a recently concluded Reach Up work group report initiated by the Legislature last session. That group concluded that reducing caseloads which have increased almost 70 percent between 2008 and 2013 is essential (the increases are partly due to increasing need and partly the result of staff reductions).
The governor’s investment in new counseling and case management for the hardest to serve participants with either substance abuse or mental health barriers helps to achieve that goal. The $650,000 investment also draws a federal match of more than $500,000, ensuring Vermont gets almost double the bang for its buck.
The Reach Up work group also recognized that affordable housing must be a policy priority in order to stabilize families with children, enhance work readiness, and help Reach Up participants successfully graduate from the program. More than 65 percent of participants in the Vermont Rental Subsidy program are Reach Up families seeking long-term affordable housing solutions. The governor’s proposal addresses this goal by doubling the Vermont Rental Assistance program from $500,000 to $1 million.
Access to affordable housing is recognized by the new council as key to combating poverty. In addition to expansion of state subsidies, another $300,000 for emergency housing solutions grants will backfill sequestration cuts and expand capacity at Vermont’s homeless shelters; $200,000 will go to family supportive housing grants.
Other suggestions for reform from the council and recommended by the Reach Up work group included making education a key focal point for investment and including educational improvement as a countable work activity, and making work pay (by reforming asset tests and earned income disregards), removing barriers to participation, and amending sanction policies to help families succeed rather than simply punishing them. These are policy choices the Legislature can, and should, review and act on to help families succeed and lower caseloads.
The governor has consistently made child care and early childhood education a priority. Last year’s proposal to transfer millions of dollars from the earned income tax credit for child care subsidies was controversial and met with opposition from lawmakers and advocates (including me). But we can all cheer the $800,000 investment in bringing STARS child care reimbursement rates up to 2014 levels. Matched with federal Race to the Top dollars, the total investment in early childhood programs is over $2.1 million.
Given the current budget climate these investments signal a renewed commitment to funding effective anti-poverty strategies that will help offset the disastrous consequences of across-the-board wrecking ball sequestration cuts which have cost our state and nation dearly. Sequestration has added to the economic woes of the poor by indiscriminately cutting housing vouchers, food stamps, fuel aid, and Head Start opportunities for our children (among many others) without rhyme or reason.
Fighting poverty is a resolution that must be kept. On the 50th anniversary of President Johnson’s War on Poverty, with one in six Vermont households receiving food stamp benefits and with increasing pressure on homeless shelters and other essential programs and services, action is required. The governor’s plan is a good start.
Christopher J. Curtis is a staff attorney at Vermont Legal Aid and co-chairman of the Governor’s Council on Pathways Out of Poverty.