A group of eight unemployed St. Johnsbury residents sought to humanize a looming budget battle at the Statehouse Wednesday, sharing stories about the difficulty they've found trying to move from state assistance to full employment.
Mostly single mothers, the women urged legislators to reject Gov. Peter Shumlin's proposed $6 million cut to the Reach Up welfare program, calling it an essential lifeline when they're out of work.
In his budget address last month, Shumlin called for Reach Up benefits to be capped at three consecutive — and five total — years, arguing, "Extending welfare to work benefits without interruption for a lifetime does nothing to actually encourage people to get a job."
But Martha Aguila (pictured above), an unemployed, single mother of four from St. Johnsbury, took issue with those words Wednesday.
"To us, [Shumlin] makes it sound like people are staying on Reach Up because it's easier or better than having a job," she told the House Human Services Committee.
That's hardly the case, she said. Of the $680 she receives each month through Reach Up, $550 goes straight to rent. That leaves her with $130 to cover the remaining expenses that she and her children face.
"If the governor is saying to people that —" Aguila began, breaking into tears. "If the governor is saying that people are staying on Reach Up because it's better than having a job, to us it shows that we need better employment opportunities — not worse Reach Up."
Speaking for the group, which was organized by the Vermont Workers Center and Voices for Vermont Children, Aguila said their biggest barriers to employment were lack of transportation, childcare and, most of all, available jobs.
"There's just not enough jobs out there — not in St. Johnsbury," she said. "All of us have applied for jobs over and over again, and we're still unemployed."
Despite cutting Reach Up benefits, Shumlin's budget proposal tackles at least one of the barriers Aguila identified: childcare.
As we wrote in this week's Fair Game, the governor is pushing hard to invest $17 million in increasing childcare subsidies to 6000 families and expanding them to another 900. The only hitch is that the money to fund it would come from the state's match to the federal Earned Income Tax Credit, which benefits roughly 44,000 low-income Vermonters.
Shortly before Aguila spoke to legislators, Shumlin's plan to cut Reach Up suffered a bit of an embarrassment, when advocates for low-income Vermonters circulated a recent administration report contradicting the administration's own case.
While Shumlin and Department for Children and Families Commissioner David Yacavone have argued in recent weeks that capping Reach Up eligibility would prompt beneficiaries to get a job, a January 2012 report prepared by the DCF itself — and signed off on by Yacavone — said doing so would be quite harmful.
"Achieving savings by eliminating financial assistance to Reach Up families with more than 60 months of assistance could leave families destitute and at risk and will create a large hole in the fabric of Vermont's safety net for those most in need," the report reads.
"The families who would be affected by this cut have three times as many barriers to gaining self-sufficiency as the general Reach Up caseload population; they are families with limited abilities and resources to recover from such a loss. The elimination of their financial assistance may put their children at risk and force a cost shift to other programs."
Vermont Legal Aid staff attorney Christopher Curtis, an opponent of the cuts who circulated the report, said in a written statement, "This report confirms what we already knew: dismantling programs that work for low-income Vermonters is catastrophic for affected families and budgetarily myopic."
Concluding her testimony in the Human Services Committee, Aguila put it this way: "We cannot end poverty in Vermont just by kicking people off of Reach Up. We're not going to go away."
Breaking into tears again, she said, "And we're not going to do any better until the system changes that keeps us in poverty."