Legislative Wrap-up: Welfare reform

Legislative Wrap-up: Welfare reform

Gov. Peter Shumlin speaks at a press conference. Photo by Alicia Freese

Gov. Peter Shumlin speaks at a press conference. Photo by Alicia Freese

Lawmakers had immediate reservations when Gov. Peter Shumlin first unveiled his “welfare reform” scheme in January. But they gradually warmed to the proposal, and four months later they followed suit, putting a five-year cap on welfare benefits for families.

The Legislature took a softer approach than Shumlin pushed for; lawmakers decided to delay or waive the cap for families in certain situations.

Reach Up is the state’s family welfare program. Currently families can receive cash assistance for an unlimited period of time.

Starting in May 2014, families will lose their benefits if they’ve been on Reach Up for five years. Any time they spend on welfare in other states will count toward the limit. But families can extend their cash grant beyond five years through a “hardship exemption” by either doing community service or securing employment.

Families can also subtract from the five-year limit any period of time in which they are unable to work, are caring for a very young child, have experienced domestic violence or are caring full-time for an ill or disabled person.  The clock doesn’t start ticking until the recipient turns 18. Child-only grants — which are given to people taking a care of child that isn’t their own — are also exempt from the limit.

The reform measure also sets up a working group to assess the Reach Up program, focusing on the sanction policy for families that don’t comply with the program and the caseload ratios. The Legislature’s plan mandates that case managers conduct a review of families at the 18-month and 36-month marks, and it rejects the administration’s proposal to implement a harsher sanction policy.

David Yacovone is the Commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, which administers the Reach Up program. Yacovone, who spent a substantial amount of time peddling Shumlin’s plan to legislative committees, said the plan they settled on is a “good beginning.”

Yacovone said he doesn’t think the string of exemptions and deferments will undo the efficacy of the cap. The goal, according to Yacovone, was to enact time limits in a way that distinguishes the “unwilling” from the “unable.” The exemptions the Senate put in place for families that are working or doing community service “say there has to be reciprocity. We’ll help you if you help yourself,” Yacovone said.

Reach Up Case Managers at the Department of Labor

DCF made a late-in-the-session request to redirect $600,000 of a $1.2 million grant, laying off about six Reach Up case managers employed through the Department of Labor and using the funds to hire substance abuse and mental health counselors to serve the Reach Up population. Currently the Reach Up program doesn’t employ counselors.

In the 2014 budget, the Legislature authorizes DCF to redirect $300,000 of the grant and leaves open the possibility that the department can seek to redirect the rest through the budget adjustment act process. DCF has already made it clear that it plans to use the entire grant — which covers 14 positions — to cover the cost of substance abuse and mental health counseling over the course of two years.

Some lawmakers have said they are doubtful that hiring substance abuse and mental health counselors will make much of a difference for Reach Up recipients, given that there are long waiting lists across the state to receive treatment for these conditions.

DCF Commissioner Yacovone said he doesn’t need the Vermont Department of Labor employees, who are charged with helping Reach Up recipients find employment.

“I think it’s a good move in the right direction. I was very, very pleased with the additional resources to help with substance abuse. It’s still enough to begin to make a difference for those who are fighting with those addictions,” Yacovone said.

Alicia Freese

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  • Dave Stevens

    A good start, but a long way to go.

  • Michael Bayer

    So, now the poor are not only lazy and not willing to work, they are drunks and drug addicts. Talk about a Republican mentality!

    Of course “DCF Commissioner Yacovone said he doesn’t need the Vermont Department of Labor employees, who are charged with helping Reach Up recipients find employment,” after all, they are drunks and addicts.

    I thought the rationale behind the cap was to “force” people to get a job. I guess they figure coercion is more effective than counseling.

  • Amelia Silver

    Michael Bayer, I think you misunderstand the point here. The DOL staff are not providing a service that is as crucial and urgently needed as substance abuse counseling. This is a fact that anyone who works with Reach Up recipients knows. Among the most pernicious and widespread barriers to employment, to getting off Reach Up, are substance abuse and mental health problems. We don’t have anything close to adequate mental health services in Vermont. So this redirection of funding and staffing is not cynical and might actually help. However, the article above doesn’t specify whether mental health or substance abuse will qualify a parent for an exemption to the cap. And finally, one small correction: child only grants are not for people caring for a child that is not theirs, but for people who do not receive a reach up grant for themselves, but do receive cash assistance (a lesser amount) for their child.

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