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.
Is the $334 million Vermont spends assisting the poor working?
Not for lack of trying.
Earnest dedication, selfless devotion and utter commitment to the work runs through virtually every office and program associated with welfare in Vermont. From the commissioner on down, the Department of Children and Families’ (DCF) staff is largely driven by an ardent desire to help vulnerable children.
DCF’s website is user friendly and easy to access, inviting needy Vermonters to apply online for benefits’ programs in Arabic, Bosnian, Burmese, Vietnamese, Russian, Nepali, Somali, Spanish, Swahili, English and more.
The department’s call center handled 11,795 calls during the last week of July, averaging 973 calls per representative. The same week, the Application and Processing Document Center scanned 15,624 documents related to welfare program enrollments.
On and off the clock, the workers of the state’s public assistance programs remain focused on their charges. Working with a suicidal teen, a community action employee confides, “She won’t be a client. I sat with her at bingo, and then saw she spilled her guts on Facebook.” Client or not, the young woman’s needs are getting addressed.
At the Lincoln School NEKCA program in St. Johnsbury, Jan Rossier cobbles together enough donations and grants to make sure the 30 or more worksite participants prepare and are served lunch, five times a week. Meals are not part of the program, but Rossier is a big believer in creating community and confronting hunger.
A creative leader, Rossier has raised funds and taken teenage mothers to Boston for a few days, as a way of persuading them not to have a second child now. “They would go to places, like the aquarium or a museum, and we would ask them, ‘Wouldn’t it be hard to do any of this with another child?'”
Most of the direct service workers are strong, mothering women. Many are like Kathy Metras of NEKCA, a former consumer of the welfare system. “I came in as a 15-year-old consumer,” Metras says, noting half her life she has been associated with poverty programs.
She bemoans the lack of effective working relationships with the schools, and often finds herself advocating for teens tossed out of conventional high schools. She believes, absolutely, that the poor she works with would definitely take a fair-paying job.
A supervisor of 10 employees managing youth services, outreach and the parent child center in Newport, Metras says she “hates to be nitpicky, but why are farms hiring people from Mexico? I don’t believe Vermonters won’t do the job. For pennies, they won’t.”
Merry Hamel and Rhonda Cole are two of Metras’ staff who also graduated from client to staff positions. Hamel runs NEKCA’s Main Street thrift store and repurposing project in Newport, where old clothes are transformed into quilts, bags, aprons and more.
“I’m thrilled working with folks here,” Hamel says. “They all have a different level of skill and this place provides them with a place to be employed. They punch in and out, learn accountability and how to handle money.” A natural cheerleader, Hamel started both sites and firmly believes the Reach Up participants who contribute time at the worksite, “are part of something good for the community, they get a sense of belonging and contribution.”
Cole, who runs NEKCA’s Teen Parent Center, says she sees herself “as a role model and educator. I give time to each student.”
NEKCA allows at-risk teens who are neither pregnant nor parents to receive Teen Parent Center services. “We once had a mother call and ask if her eighth-grade daughter had to be knocked up to come to the center,” Rossier remembers. “We decided to go ahead and accept at-risk girls.”
Within Vermont’s empire of poverty programs, NEKCA is firmly planted at the bottom, in terms of low pay and benefits. The career path most commonly taken by NEKCA employees moves them to a state-level position, where benefits and pay are much higher. Several people interviewed for this series were in line for promotions into state positions, some gaining more than $6 an hour in compensation.
“Vermont cares about children,” says Reach Up case manager Melissa Herman. “I work with low-income families, helping them gain skills to gain employment and self sufficiency.”
Reach Up case manager Melissa Herman, once a NECKA employee, works closely with NEKCA staff in Newport. She has a caseload of more than 50 Reach Up participants, and says the bottom line in her work is “the kids.”
“Vermont cares about children,” she says. “I work with low-income families, helping them gain skills to gain employment and self sufficiency.” Generational poverty is “absolutely real,” she added, though she has seen no statistics.
How does Herman measure success?
“In baby steps. Sometimes it means a young mother trusts using child care for the first time,” she says.
Equally passionate is Neil Morrissette, Vermont Association of Business, Industry and Rehabilitation’s (VABIR) business account manager.
Referring to the dozens of individuals he helps find work, Morrissette says,” People really do try hard but sometimes give up, but I feel we as a society can never allow that to happen.”
Morrissette estimates close to 80 percent of the referrals he works with do find employment. Attitude is key, he stresses.
“We need people who are looking for work to feel good about themselves. We need them to believe they have something to offer … themselves!”
Morrissette convenes a weekly meeting of upwards of 15 poverty program workers where brainstorming is standard. They’re exploring offering courses in being a waiter and waitress, as well as customer services training. VABIR hosts an annual employer recognition program, honoring local businesses for working with the unemployed poor. “We appreciate our employers!”
Programs, performance and costs
In requesting $334 million to operate the Department of Children and Families, Commissioner David Yacovone told lawmakers his 1,000 employees are focused on, “fostering self-sufficiency, reducing the number of children living in poverty, building strong families, and developing solid local partnerships.” He further noted the department’s commitment to:
• reduce poverty and homelessness;
• improve the safety and well-being of children and families;
• create permanent connections for children and youth.
In his budget testimony before the General Assembly, Yacovone reported on the Economic Services Division’s four performance highlights, accomplished by 376 state employees.
• Half of the highlights related to improving the speed the division processes applications for assistance with food, fuel, work, housing and health insurance.
• Another highlight was the addition of a new rental subsidy program, where the state pays part of the monthly rent of a homeless Vermonter for up to a year.
• The final highlight referenced assistance provided to 5,800 Vermont families on welfare, including the distribution of 200 cars and provision of 26,000 rides to work.
• Reach Up, the welfare to work program, has experienced a small drop, from 1,121 to 939 families in the three-county region.
• General Assistance has gone from 1,248 to a little over 700 cases. However, many of these individuals moved onto the federal Social Security benefits programs. In 2011, just 12 percent found employment.
• Fuel assistance and food stamps dependence has continued to leap in the Kingdom, adding 22 percent more households in the past four years to the rolls; 7,209 families now receive food stamps and 5,516 get help with fuel bills. In the past 10 years, food stamps participation statewide grew 237 percent.
• ThreeSquaresVT reports the average monthly administrative cost per case in 2011 in Vermont was $122.01, while the United States Department of Agriculture reports the average monthly benefit per Vermonter for the same time period was $122.10.
• Within the Reach Up world, the average grant runs around $640 a month, and costs $210 a month to administer.
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. A licensed nursing home administrator, Knight’s books for caregivers are sold by Hartman Publishing. Her first novel, “On the Edge of Tickle,” can be found at http://vtdigger.org/2012/12/21/part-1-kingdom-to-king-dump/.