( – promoted by Jack McCullough)
Gov. Shumlin recently announced a new poverty reduction initiative. The total new state funding comes to about $2.5 million for homeless shelters, longer term affordable housing solutions, child care subsidies and case management/counseling services for low-income families. Together with federal matching money the total of new spending on anti-poverty programs tops $4 million.
This is a pretty big deal. I cannot recall a time in my almost ten years at Vermont Legal Aid where an initiative like this has been announced before the sitting Governor’s budget address. Having these commitments from the Governor secured in advance starts the conversation with lawmakers about priorities in an entirely different place. It signals an early commitment to anti-poverty programs that work. And, the establishment of a new poverty council signals a new commitment to communication and collaboration with low-income service providers and anti-poverty advocates. That is a welcome development from years past and prior administrations.
It’s also worth noting that many of the initiatives outlined by the Governor were recommendations made to him by an ad hoc coalition of low-income advocates who worked for months on a wide ranging report he requested in advance. Some of the recommendations are also echoed in a months long review of the Reach Up program required by the legislature (in which I also participated).
And, hopefully there will be more to come. Vermont Legal Aid’s poverty law project has created a legislative agenda focused on “Housing, Hunger, and Hard Work”. Many of the “housing” priorities are included in the Governor’s initiative (for example, doubling the Vermont Rental Subsidy program). But we hope lawmakers will respond to other issues we and others are raising as well. For example, holding low-income families harmless from food stamp overpayments that resulted from the state’s errors, not because of any fault of the families. And, making work pay for families on Reach Up by eliminating outdated asset tests and increasing earned income disregards so that work is rewarded, not punished. It would be great incentive if families knew they could keep every dime they earn for a period of time before grant reductions kick in instead of immediately losing support simply because they went to work. Other states are implementing these ideas. Vermont should, too.
The Council members (listed below) represent a wide variety of service providers and advocates well known for vigorous and able representation on behalf of their constituents. The new plan isn’t perfect, but it’s a far cry from no investment at all, or starting the year fighting new cuts to essential programs and services.
Certainly, the budget has yet to be announced and given the early reports of a $70 million deficit there are likely to be budget cuts forthcoming. It remains to be seen how savings will be acheived by the Administration. Certainly where proposed cuts might adversely affect the poorest Vermonters low-income advocates will once again speak out. That’s our job. On the other hand, today we have good news to cheer from the Administration in the form of significant new money for several programs and services many of us have recommended.
Taken together with the Administration’s willingness to listen to advocates over the summer before implementing emergency rules that would have overly restricted access to Vermont’s General Assistance program (which has resulted in the Administration going back to the legislature for more funds for emergency shelter – something the Council members support) these commitments represent real progress for the low-income Vermonters. It’s a good start.
I know I speak for the Council when I say we hope Vermonters will join us in supporting the Governor’s poverty reduction plan – and other initiatives designed to alleviate the symptoms and causes of poverty in Vermont. It’s a worthy effort.
Governor’s Council on Pathways Out of Poverty
Christopher Curtis, Vermont Legal Aid
Linda Ryan, Samaritan House
Cary Brown, Vermont Commission on Women
Joshua Davis, Morningside Shelter
Erik Hoekstra, Redstone Commercial Group
Sara Kobylenski, Upper Valley Haven
Karen Lafayette, Vermont Low Income Advocacy Council (VLIAC)
Jan Demers, Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity (CVOEO)
Erhard Mahnke, Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition (VAHC)
Rita Markley, Committee on Temporary Shelter (COTS)
Michael Monte, Champlain Housing Trust
Marissa Parisi, Hunger Free Vermont
Joe Patrissi, Northeast Kingdom Community Action (NEKCA)
Elizabeth Ready, John Graham Shelter
Mark Redmond, Spectrum Youth Services
Sheila Reed, Voices for Vermont’s Children
Auburn Waterson, Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence
Richard Williams, Vermont State Housing Authority (VSHA)
Council currently made up of 19 members (30 member maximum).