Opponents Of Cuts To Reach Up Program Face Uphill Battle In Montpelier

Jan 20, 2016

Opponents of newly enacted cuts to welfare benefits have begun their legislative push to repeal the changes. Lawmakers say they appreciate advocates’ concerns. But they say fiscal pressures will make it tough to find the revenue needed to rescind cuts to program known as Reach Up.

The reductions began taking effect last month, and they hit disabled Vermonters eligible for a federal program called Supplemental Security Income.

Until last month, income from that program wasn’t used in the formula used to determine Reach Up benefits. Now that it is, about 860 households will see annual benefit reductions of about $1,500.

“Today, parents who have disabilities are now forced to decide what basic needs they will cut now that they have $125 less per month,” says Sarah Launderville, executive director of the Vermont Center for Independent Living.

Launderville delivered her remarks at a Statehouse press conference on Wednesday. The event marks the beginning of concerted push by advocates to convince lawmakers to repeal the cuts.

Administration officials say other social-service programs – like fuel and food assistance for example – include Supplemental Security Income in the formula used to determine benefits. Launderville says Reach Up benefits exist to ensure a household can meet basic human needs.

She says individuals with disabilities face unique expenses, like “specialized equipment, specialized food, having to hire someone to mow your lawn, shovel your driveway, help stack wood, bring out the trash.”

Since SSI income is needed to pay for costs related to a disability, Launderville says it’s unfair to count that money against a family’s Reach Up benefit.

"Today, parents who have disabilities are ... forced to decide what basic needs they will cut now that they have $125 less per month." — Sarah Launderville, executive director of the Vermont Center for Independent Living

Launderville and other advocates have already missed their first opportunity to undo the reductions. The House Committee on Appropriations approved a budget adjustment bill on Wednesday that leaves the new policy in place.

The bill now heads to the Senate. But Caledonia Sen. Jane Kitchel, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, says advocates face an uphill climb.

“We were just hit with another downgrade of the revenues that we have to work with in the fiscal year,” Kitchel says.

Karen Lafayette, director of the Vermont Low Income Advocacy Council, says the reductions could have a domino effect that ends up costing far more than the $1.6 million lawmakers will save annually as a result of the cuts.

“Taking away any amount of income from people who are this poor just puts them another step closer to the downward spiral and possible tragedy of homelessness,” Lafayette says.

And while a federal judge upheld the constitutionality of the cuts after advocates challenged them in court, Lafayette says the ruling doesn’t vindicate the policy change.

“Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean it’s right,” Lafayette says.

The Reach Up program is running $4 million under budget this year, but lawmakers say that extra money is needed to pay for investments in the Department for Children and Families.