PAI: Reach Up grant is outdated and inadequate

-A A +A

PAI: Reach Up grant is outdated and inadequate

Fri, 04/01/2022 - 3:37pm -- tim
Child Poverty in Vermont

Public Assets Institute Does Vermont want to help families with children living in poverty? So far we’ve gotten a mixed message from policymakers on this question. But there is still time for the Legislature to act decisively.

Last week the House passed a bill that would make improvements to Vermont’s Reach Up program, which provides cash assistance and support services (work readiness, job and housing search, and other assistance) to families with children in poverty.

H.464 would codify newly implemented Department for Children and Families’ practices that improve support to parents as they work their way out of poverty. It would also make modest changes to cash benefits, but not until 2024 and only for participants who receive child support or have a job.

Two days later, the House passed its version of the state budget for fiscal year 2023, which begins July 1 this year, accepting the administration’s proposal to cut funding for Reach Up cash assistance even as caseloads are growing.

Support services alone cannot improve families’ well-being. Cash investments also are needed. If families don’t have enough to pay for their basic needs, struggling to meet them becomes full-time work no matter how good the support system. Meanwhile, their children continue to live in poverty.

Families on Reach Up can’t meet their basic needs with current state assistance. The program uses an outdated and inadequate basic needs estimate, and then provides families with less than half of that amount. The Reach Up basic needs benefit includes both housing and non-housing assistance.

Housing benefits were last changed more than 20 years ago, and non-housing benefits are currently based on 2019 standards.

Participants’ maximum monthly benefits, which include other state assistance they might get, like 3SquaresVT, LIHEAP (fuel), and Lifeline (phone and internet), do not cover the cost of living. Some families have subsidized housing, narrowing the gap, but in 2021 over 60 percent of the 3,000 families on Reach Up did not.

Lawmakers have historically not provided the level of financial assistance families need to move out of poverty. But they can change that this session. First, they can base Reach Up benefits on the current-year cost of living so families don’t fall farther behind due to inflation. And, second, they can increase cash assistance so that families’ maximum monthly benefits at least meet Reach Up’s estimate of basic needs, but preferably move them closer to JFO’s more reasonable estimate. With these two actions the Legislature would send a clear message that Vermont takes child poverty seriously.