Part 3: From welfare to state payroll

Editor’s note: In September, the Caledonian-Record published an exclusive series by AP award-winning writer Bethany Knight of Glover on poverty and cash welfare benefits in the Northeast Kingdom. The Caledonian-Record and Knight have generously allowed VTDigger to republish an edited version of the series.

In 2010, Liz Colby’s family’s finances got so desperate, the full-time mother knew she needed a job.

“My husband had worked for years as a machinist and was laid off,” Colby says. For two years, he had looked for work while receiving unemployment.

“The last five months of his unemployment, he started having disability issues,” and she called Reach Up. “I’m a human services worker from way back when,” she says, noting she once served on the Lunenburg school board. “I get very defensive when people say, ‘Those welfare types can sit on the beach.’ They’re generalizing a whole class of people.”

The state of Vermont determines Reach Up eligibility, so Mr. and Mrs. Colby went to the St. Johnsbury offices of the Economic Services Division and met with case managers. The couple was assigned a 30-hour weekly work requirement and a monthly grant of about $700. They decided he would stay home and care for their teenage special-needs child, and she would work with case managers to begin her job search. The Colbys already were receiving fuel assistance and state health insurance. Through Reach Up, the family also qualified for more than $600 in 3Squares, Vermont’s food stamps program.

Looking back on her journey, Liz Colby doesn’t consider Reach Up demeaning or make-work. Before the Gilman placement, she went to a worksite and Job Club, “I looked at it as ‘I’m looking for work today,’ sharing job leads with other participants, mock interviewing and practicing job search skills like making cold calls.”

Because Reach Up case managers, both state employees and those contracted from NEKCA, can scale down the work requirement, only about 37 percent of the Reach Up recipients in the Northeast Kingdom actually work.

The work requirement is modified for health reasons, for those with children under 2, or if they can’t find child care. Roughly 30 percent of participants have their requirement deferred for one or more of these reasons.

“We try not to defer people,” says Jan Rossier, a NEKCA manager. Reach Up allows participants 24 deferral months for child-care reasons, but once this lifetime limit has been used up, the participant must come to the worksite.

With or without deferrals, participants have a Family Development Plan (FDP) outlining goals and activities leading to employment. The FDP is a contract, spelling out how many hours of work experience, education and other activities must be completed.

Of the Reach Up participants without deferments, 37 percent work. The federal government requires a 50 percent work rate, which is one of the reasons Vermont started Reach Ahead, a state-funded program whose numbers boost the work rate. Vermont also meets the federal 50 percent work rate requirement though a complicated mechanism called case reduction credit.

Two years ago, Colby had no interest in a deferment. She wanted to work, and if she couldn’t, she wanted to volunteer.

“I had an opportunity to work at Gilman Housing,” Colby, 43, recalls. “My Reach Up grant was my payment.

“The hard part was juggling the 30 hours and continuing to look for work,” since landing paid employment is the recipient’s most immediate job.

“Ninety percent of the jobs people get are not advertised. You do it yourself,” the Burke resident says. Her mortgage was her first priority. “Our credit went to crap, but we kept the house.”

In February 2011, this former postal employee had a telephone interview with the state of Vermont. She did well in the face-to-face interview and was hired as an employment training specialist serving General Assistance clients in the St. Johnsbury and White River Junction offices of the Vermont Association of Business, Industry and Rehabilitation (VABIR). General Assistance provides services to adults with no children who are considered unemployable due to physical and/or mental barriers. (General Assistance is featured in Part 9 of this series.)

Looking back on her journey, Liz Colby doesn’t consider Reach Up demeaning or make-work. Before the Gilman placement, she went to a worksite and Job Club, “I looked at it as ‘I’m looking for work today,’ sharing job leads with other participants, mock interviewing and practicing job search skills like making cold calls.”

As a Vermont state employee, Colby has 80 percent paid health insurance. Buying her husband coverage on her plan was, “too pricey, so he applied for and was found eligible for VHAP, monthly premium $45.” The family no longer receives 3SquaresVT, but qualified for $400 in fuel assistance last winter.

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Nothing very temporary about “temporary aid”

Reach Up officials note less than four percent of the participants who find employment earn more than $13 an hour. Further, they acknowledge that until a program participant earns $17 or more an hour, she continues to receive government assistance.

“I would say there were very few $17-an-hour jobs for people to start at,” says Neil Morrissette, VABIR’s Northeast Kingdom business account manager.

“I would say there were very few $17-an-hour jobs for people to start at,” says Neil Morrissette, VABIR’s Northeast Kingdom business account manager.

Added to these wage realities is the starker challenge: the NEK’s three-county average rate of unemployment was 8.6 percent in 2011.

By law, no one can receive Reach Up funds for more than five years, but Vermont has not chosen to push people off the program, known nationally as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. Federal law allows up to 20 percent of a state’s Reach Up recipients to receive federal temporary funds for more than 60 months, through a “hardship exemption.”

However, in 2000 the Vermont General Assembly passed a law assuring that no families would have to be shut off. Instead, Vermont continues to support such families statewide, averaging 17 a month in 2011. The state spent $16 million in fiscal year 2012 running programs for these families, plus covering parents sanctioned or deferred from work as well as minor parents.

Vermont operates other welfare programs, including Reach Ahead and Reach First, costing taxpayers another $40 million. These two Reach programs wrap around Reach Up, offering before and after services.

Reach First, which served 359 families in 2011, is designed for families needing help for four months or less, due to a short-term financial crisis. Nearly half of the Reach First participants did not enter Reach Up program, which state officials point to as a win-win for participants and taxpayers.

Reach Ahead, a food assistance benefit, served 269 families in 2011, and is for Reach Up families who leave the program, provided there is one gainfully employed adult, a minor child and all other requirements are met. Liz Colby received the standard Reach Ahead grant of $100 a month in food stamps during her first six months and $50 for the next six.

Bethany Knight of Glover is a former newspaper reporter, magazine editor, college journalism instructor, gubernatorial speech writer and health care executive. She co-authored five reports on Vermont issues produced by the Ethan Allen Institute, www.ethanallen.org. A licensed nursing home administrator, Knight’s books for caregivers are sold by Hartman Publishing www.hartmanonline.com. Her first novel, “On the Edge of Tickle,” can be found at www.smashwords.com.

Correction: State employees pay 20 percent toward health insurance costs, which for a family on the POS (“HMO”) plan is approximately $4,420 year in premiums, plus 10 percent to 40 percent copay and $750 per person deductible on prescriptions, and $20 copay on doctor’s visits. We originally reported that state workers get 100 percent of their health insurance costs covered by the state.

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