Nearly one in six Vermont children is living in poverty, and advocates say it’s time to put more money into solving the problem. Now, a coalition is pushing for a surcharge on hotel stays to generate new revenue.
Back in June, the Annie E. Casey Foundation issued a report examining child poverty in Vermont. The state is doing better than other states on average. But the report found that in 2013, 15 percent of Vermont children lived in households that were below the federal poverty line, up from 13 percent five years earlier.
“Child poverty rates are on the rise, and this is a huge, troubling trend,” says Christopher Curtis, a staff attorney at Vermont Legal Aid. “We have a crisis among families who are facing traumatic economic destabilization, and the time to act is now.”
Curtis is a longtime advocate for low-income Vermonters, and co-chairman of the Council on Pathways from Poverty. Last month, the group submitted a number of new recommendations to Gov. Peter Shumlin. Not all of the proposals will come with big price tags.
For instance, the council wants lawmakers to prohibit employers from asking prospective workers about conviction records in paper job applications. It also wants to expand a driver-restoration program that gives reduced fines and penalties for low-income people with suspended licenses.
But Curtis says that if elected officials are serious about reducing poverty in Vermont, then they need to generate new revenues to address the budget shortfalls in Montpelier.
“If it’s done through reductions in services, or placing the costs or the burdens on families who can least afford it, that’s a poor tax,” Curtis says. “We’ve got to solve that problem, and lawmakers and the governor are going to have to address it in a way that looks at revenue solutions.”
The council’s report says the governor should raise the money by imposing a $2-per-night surcharge on hotel and motel stays. The plan would generate an estimated $12 million annually.
Linda Ryan is executive director of the Samaritan House in St. Albans and co-chair of the Council on Pathways from Poverty. The Samaritan House provides emergency shelter and transitional housing, and Ryan says need is higher than ever.
“Even though we’re making progress in other areas with the economy, [for] people with low incomes and very low incomes, things are getting worse, it appears,” Ryan says.
The council is calling for a half-million-dollar increase in rental assistance funds, along with a slate of other anti-homelessness initiatives. Ryan says progress on the housing issue hinges on elected officials’ willingness to raise the money.
“I mean if they want to end homelessness, truly want to end it, and not just say it, then we’re going to have to make an investment somewhere,” Ryan says.
Secretary of Administration Justin Johnson says the administration hasn’t come to decision yet on the merits of a hotel surcharge, but he says the governor is giving the proposal serious consideration.