Vermont plan to limit welfare-to-work draws fire

Monday April 22, 2013

MONTPELIER -- For Roslyn Haldane and Jen Grey, a plan by Gov. Peter Shumlin's administration to put new limits on a welfare-to-work program could create a nasty domino effect.

Grey could lose the $640 monthly check she receives from the state, which would force the extended Barre family to combine two households into one. Haldane would have to ask the disabled man she cares for to move, costing her the $2,400-a-month state stipend she gets for providing that care and forcing the man to find a new situation.

"I would have absolutely no income at all," Haldane said.

Haldane is a former vice president of a visiting nurses company who hurt her back while working and shifted to a home-based, part-time job of providing care for the disabled man. Grey is the fiancee of Haldane's son Richard, who is also disabled with a traumatic brain injury.

Grey, 26, has been taking classes part time at the Community College of Vermont toward becoming a licensed practical nurse, but with three children of her own, she has not been able to take enough credit hours to stay in the good graces of the Reach Up program.

With the changes the Democratic governor and his aides are pushing, Grey fears being cut off from state support, forcing her, Richard and the children, who are 7, 6 and 2, to move in with Haldane.

"It's not just the poor who are affected," Haldane said. "I'm a middle-class person and it affects me. There's a trickle-down."

For Dave Yacovone, some people just need a push to get off public assistance and into the workforce. The commissioner of the state Department for Children and Families has been the point man defending Shumlin's proposals, which originally said the state would limit Reach Up benefits to three years in a row and five over a lifetime but since have shifted to accommodate a household that spends five straight years on the program.

At some point, Yacovone said, a program designed to move people off dependency on public assistance and into the workforce has to end or "it becomes generational," with the children of longtime welfare recipients growing up to be dependent on the state as well.

Vermont is the only state that has no time limit on its welfare-to-work program. The federal government's deadline is five years. After that, federal support stops for most recipients and the state is left to pay the full cost on its own. Five years ago, 7 percent of the caseload was beyond the five-year time limit. Today it's 15 percent, Yacovone said.

Currently, about 6,500 households get Reach Up benefits. The state distributes about $38 million of benefits per year, a small fraction of its $1.3 billon general fund budget.

"Obviously, something's not working," Yacovone said.

The state would continue benefits for those whose medical conditions, disabilities or other hardships prevent them from getting jobs, Yacovone said. People for whom benefits would stop are "those who fall into the unwilling category," he said.

Each able recipient must be taking steps toward finding work, Yacovone said. The state helps recipients in that process, but some have questioned its commitment on that front. Lawmakers point to a chart from the administration showing instances in which Reach Up counselors were pulled off those duties to provide help on backlogs in applications for benefits and to a move to cut 14 jobs over two years for Reach Up counselors at the state Department of Labor.

Under a revised proposal Yacovone presented to the Senate Appropriations Committee this past week, someone who fell out of compliance would see benefits gradually lowered over four months and then stopped completely.

One carrot the administration wants to offer is expanded child care subsidies for low-income working parents with young children. Yacovone said this would alleviate what he called the "benefit cliff," wherein a loss of state assistance historically has made some people moving to minimum-wage jobs no better off than if they had continued to rely purely on public assistance.

Reach Up changes have been one of the more hotly debated items on the legislative agenda this year. A version passed the House, and when Yacovone offered senators his slightly changed version this past week, advocates for low-income Vermonters were quick to express their unhappiness.

"This is a last-minute plan that does little or nothing to help families succeed," Vermont Legal Aid lawyer Christopher Curtis said. "Instead, the administration has doubled-down on a failed time limits policy and is piling on the poor by imposing punitive sanctions that would throw families and children off the program ... without any time to study what the impacts would be - either to families, themselves or to the budget."

While the debate rages in Montpelier, Grey said her days are filled with hard, practical considerations. "It's hard to find a job if you don't have a car, and it's hard to buy a car if you don't have a job. It's kind of a Catch-22," she said. "You can't take the bus to day care and then take the (next) bus to work. You'll be two hours late."

Haldane said, "I can understand they want people off welfare. They want people to get off Reach Up. But you're condemning the children. What kind of food are they going to have? What kind of clothes?"


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