In 2007, state leaders created a high-profile task force and gave it a daunting challenge: Cut childhood poverty by half in 10 years.
As the effort by the Childhood Poverty Council moves into its sixth year, however, the number of children living below the federal poverty line has actually increased, according to U.S. Census data. And top officials and advocates say the goal will almost certainly go unrealized.
“I am quite pessimistic about that,” Human Services Secretary Doug Racine told the council last week.
Racine was a Democratic senator from Chittenden County when he was a founding member of the Childhood Poverty Council; he served as its first chairman. As he related to the council last week, the panel was borne out of a desire “to change the conversation and focus on childhood poverty as an issue.”
“We had seen efforts to add a little money here and a little money there,” Racine said. “But there was never any real focus to look at what was going on, and to change the underlying causes of poverty.”
While heightened focus on the issue has yielded some positive results, according to all involved, it has proven wholly ineffective at solving the problem.
In 2007, the child poverty rate was 12.4 percent. According to Census data from 2012, more than 15 percent of children in Vermont lived below the federal poverty line, which amounts to less than $24,000 in household income for a family of four.
The number of Vermont families on a federal welfare program known as Reach Up has jumped by more than 20 percent over the same time period.
There’s little dispute over the causes of the backslide. Shortly after the council set its goal, Vermont and the rest of the country ran into the worst economic recession since World War II, resulting in job losses that dragged formerly middle-class families into poverty.
Growing income inequality, meanwhile, has funneled resources to top earners, while wages in lower-and middle-class jobs have gone stagnant.
Over the past three decades, according to Paul Cillo, head of a liberal policy outfit called the Public Assets Institute, “the amount of income that goes to the top 1 percent has tripled.”
“And what that does is take money out of the economy, because when a few people have a lot of money, they’re not spending it in the state,” Cillo said. “They’re investing it outside the state and outside the country, in large part.”
Racine offered council members a similar diagnosis, and said “growing income inequality, exacerbated by actions in Washington,” have hobbled Vermont’s ability to lift the poor from their troubled economic stations.
“Despite our best efforts, some of these issues look very similar to the way they looked four or five years ago,” he said. “The evolution in my personal thinking … is that we go from reducing childhood poverty to mitigating its impacts.”
Sequestration has had a particularly harmful effect on efforts at the Agency of Human Services, where, according to Racine, the federal cuts will cost Vermont about 800 Section 8 housing vouchers.
“That’s huge,” he said. “That’s a lot of families.”
Sequestration will cut capacity in the state’s Head Start program for at-risk youth by 200 slots, and beginning last Friday, reductions in food stamps started showing up in the form of decreased monthly benefits for the approximately 100,000 Vermonters enrolled in the program.
Racine warned council members — the 14-person panel, chartered by the Legislature, includes a mix of legislators, administration officials and advocates — that the fiscal picture in the state budget next year could also be grim.
“And those pressures are felt most acutely by those who are of concern to this council,” Racine said. “So I find this to be a very difficult and frightening time, and we struggle to do in the Agency of Human Services what we can to address this issue.”
Not everyone is so convinced, however, that Vermont is powerless to improve fiscal conditions in state government.
Senate Majority Leader Philip Baruth expressed concern last week over Gov. Peter Shumlin’s blanket opposition to any increase in broad-based taxes. Baruth told Racine that the Democratic governor’s decree from on high serves to suppress a movement inside the Statehouse that might otherwise result in legislation to bolster the revenues over which the state does wield control.
“In Washington, D.C., Democrats are pushing for a more balanced solution — more revenue, more cuts. And at the state level, I would hope that our push in government would be to go the same away, with a balanced approach,” Baruth said.
“I find myself wondering each year why the admin(istration) proposes at the very beginning no increase in broad-based taxes,” he said. “It seems if you start there we wind up where we wind up at the federal level, and then we have people like yourself, who say we just have to do the best we can do with limited resources, and that instead of cutting poverty by 50 percent in 10 years, we just try to bend the curve.”
While they appreciate some of the operational innovations undertaken in Racine’s agency — harmonizing the state’s home weatherization initiative with its fuel assistance program, for instance — advocates say solving poverty requires money.
“It’s important not to lose track that money matters,” said Carlen Finn, executive director of Voices for Vermont’s Children.
“We know that programs like Social Security brought a lot of people, our elders and seniors, out of poverty,” Finn said. “And I want to think about the economic side of this, and how we address poverty also by income supports.”
As an agency secretary, Racine said the issue of state-level revenue increases is beyond his domain.
“It’s about money. And money’s about politics,” Racine said. “Those decisions about the amount of money available to the Agency of Human Services and the level of taxation are made by the governor. Ultimately, it’s a decision made by the governor and by the Legislature.”
Assistant House Majority Leader Tess Taylor is the newly minted chairwoman of the Childhood Poverty Council, and she reconvened it earlier this year for the first time after a long hiatus. She said members of the council are going to come up with specific poverty-fighting policy initiatives around housing, transportation, workforce education and childcare.
Taylor said raising money for those programs will become more realistic if council members can demonstrate a convincing need.
“We all know we need money,” Taylor said. “I think we need very concrete reasons to get it, and I think work like what the council is doing can help us hone in on what it is we need to have, and then we can have a conversation about raising revenues in a responsible and methodical way.”