Cuts To Reach Up Program Strain Some Of Vermont's Most Vulnerable

Dec 23, 2015

Eris Toneatti has the put-together appearance of a fashionable young mom, which she is, and the poised bearing of an upper-middle-class professional, which she most certainly is not.

Toneatti is 29 years old. She’s a single mom to a 9-year-old son, named Adrien. She got by on about $15,000 in income last year. And she remembers the moment that she found out things were about to get tougher.

“It was complete and utter panic,” Toneatti says. “I wasn’t looking at it as, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do.’ It was, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to make things happen for my child.’”

Toneatti heads one of the 860 Vermont households that will see monthly welfare benefits cut by $125 beginning this month. Lawmakers approved the reductions earlier this year as part of a cost-cutting measure in a program known as “Reach Up.” 

The reductions affect families in which an adult receives Supplemental Security Income, a federal program for disabled people who can’t work. Until now, income from SSI didn’t figure into the formula used to determine Reach Up benefits.

But by calculating Supplemental Security Income into the Reach Up equation, administration officials and legislators were able reduce annual Reach Up costs by $1.6 million. The decision might have solved one budget problem. Toneatti, who lives with a serious mental illness, says it’s created a whole lot more.

Starting this month, 860 Vermont households will see monthly welfare benefits cut by $125.

“Obviously, you’ve got some families that in any situation might abuse the system,” Toneatti says. “But you’ve got these families that are saying, ‘Hey, I’m trying to do the best for my children, and it’s becoming progressively more difficult, especially when a cut like this happen.’”

Toneatti says she long ago mastered the art of budgeting. New clothes and name-brand foods don’t make appearances in her South Burlington apartment, where the rent – $636.50 – eats up half her monthly income.

Her son’s “new” bike was a dump find. It was girl’s pink when she discovered it, a problem Toneatti solved with a can of spray paint.

“With my son, I try to keep things as normal as possible, so he doesn’t see that we struggle … and for him to not feel kind of the ridicule and the shame that comes along with it,” she says.

Adrien Toneatti’s extracurricular luxury comes in the form of a bowling league with his friends. But the $125 monthly reduction represents about 10 percent of Toneatti’s entire income, not including the food stamps she receives.

Toneatti is now worried about being able to run the washer, let alone pay for bowling league fees.

“And it sounds silly – it’s $10 a week. It doesn’t seem like a lot,” Toneatti says. “But to suddenly have $125 cut, then you look at the $40 a month payout.”

Robin Wheeler understands the feeling.

"It feels like I'm being punished because I'm disabled, because if I could I'd be out there working and I wouldn't be on the system at all and that would be great." — Robin Wheeler

“We’re not the type of people that will go and buy new clothes, or anything like that,” Wheeler says. “We’ve adjusted to a lifestyle where we know we can’t do or have certain things.”

Wheeler is 52. She lives with her 16-year old daughter in a single-wide trailer in Williamstown, willed to her by her late brother. She lives below the federal poverty line, which, in Vermont, is $15,930 for a family of two.

Cuts to Reach Up have Wheeler worried about making the $520 monthly mortgage on her home, let alone saving up to address the host of structural problems it has. She’s already worried about what happens next time her 2006 Nissan Sentra – given to her by a good Samaritan – breaks down.

“It feels like I’m being punished because I’m disabled, because if I could I’d be out there working and I wouldn’t be on the system at all and that would be great,” Wheeler says.

Ken Schatz, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, says the cuts are regrettable.

“I would greatly prefer not to have to do this,” Schatz says.

"I do appreciate that this is a challenge for the families who are in this situation, but in fact, compared to other families they actually have more money available to them." — Ken Schatz, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families

Schatz, however, says the state needed to find $1.6 million in savings to Reach Up. And he says that Supplemental Security Income was among the only streams of income that wasn’t counted against Reach Up benefits. Instead of cutting benefits to Reach Up recipients across the board, Schatz says that, in the interest of “parity,” the administration proposed concentrating the cuts on households receiving SSI.

“I do appreciate that this is a challenge for the families who are in this situation, but in fact, compared to other families they actually have more money available to them,” Schatz says. 

Schatz also says that reductions in Reach Up benefits will make some families eligible for more generous food stamps allocations.

That’s cold comfort to Wheeler, who has agoraphobia, post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder, conditions that prevent her from holding a job.

“And you know, you want the best for your kids. And I just don’t know what I’m going to do. I really don’t know. It’s so discouraging,” Wheeler says. “You fell less-than, you know? It just focuses on that disability, because you can’t do anything to better the situation.”

"It's really the height of irony that anyone could claim that these families are somehow advantaged." — Christopher Curtis, staff attorney at Vermont Legal Aid

Christopher Curtis is a staff attorney at Vermont Legal Aid, which filed an unsuccessful bid in federal court to have the cuts rescinded. Curtis says the cuts function as a “poor tax,” and unfairly target vulnerable families.

“It’s really the height of irony that anyone could claim that these families are somehow advantaged,” Curtis says. “First of all, they’re living far below the federal poverty line. Second of all, they have a physical or mental health limitation that precludes them from working.”

Curtis says the benefit cuts could lead to homelessness and other economic dislocation that will end up costing taxpayers more in the long run. Curtis says with child poverty rates on the rise in Vermont, the state needs to be doing more to combat poverty, not less.

“It proves that we have got to do more to invest in these programs, so that these kids have a decent start in life and can eventually move to economic independence themselves,” Curtis says.