Jack Hoffman: Yes, all kids deserve a decent start

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There's a lot in the budget the governor presented last month to the Legislature — and to the public. It's a proposal to spend more than $6.3 billion for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The detailed budget book is over 1,350 pages, and that doesn't count the supporting documents.

Buried in all of that information is one number that is hard to understand: a savings of $449,704 in the Reach Up program, which helps to pay for food, clothing, and housing for children in low-income families that can't afford these basic necessities.

The saving comes from a projected drop in the Reach Up caseload. More than 6,000 families turned to the program for help during and immediately after the recession. But now participation is down to about 3,500, and the forecast is that the number of families needing help will "decrease modestly through 2020 and stagnate in 2021."

That all seems to make sense — fewer people, less cost — until you dig into another document the governor included in his budget package: "Report on Unfunded Budget Pressures." This is a catalog of programs the state is underfunding. It shows that Reach Up should be getting more than twice as much as the governor has proposed. The estimated cost of assistance payments that would enable families to cover their basic needs is $45.7 million. The base appropriation in the governor's budget is $21.8 million.

Reversing the governor's proposed cut isn't going to make up for the underfunding of Reach Up that has been going on for years. But it's a step in the wrong direction, and it's really at odds with other messages in the governor's budget address.

He proposed $1 million for a newborn home visiting program, telling his audience: "This model has improved the health of babies and moms, reduced costs of child protection, special education, substance abuse and criminal justice services down the road, and put families on a path to economic self-sufficiency."

He also highlighted proposals for a "universal afterschool network" and expanded mental health services in schools. By making such investments, he said, "we can prevent serious problems before they develop and give every child the hope and opportunity they need and deserve."

Helping kids to get a good start in life is the right thing to do and the smart thing to do for all of the reasons the governor laid out. Essential to that effort is making the public investment "to improve the well-being of children by providing for their immediate basic needs, including food, housing, and clothing," which is among the purposes of Reach Up. The state is not even covering half of these costs now. If our elected leaders are serious about giving kids a decent start, they need to start by making sure that families are able to meet their immediate basic needs.

Jack Hoffman is a policy analyst for Public Assets Institute (publicassets.org), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization based in Montpelier. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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