Human Services Secretary Doug Racine recently acknowledged his own agency’s defeat in reducing childhood poverty in Vermont – a concession that frankly astonishes me.
The Agency of Human Services is the largest in State government with a total budget, including federal monies, of $2.2B. If we assume 15% of Vermonters are abject poor and another 10% are working poor, that’s a quarter of the state’s population – or 160,000 people living in poverty. With these resources we should at least be able to alleviate the conditions of poverty, and diminish the gap between available jobs and the unemployed.
There are available jobs, but few qualified candidates. So it should be possible to lessen this job gap through job training, workforce development and innovative programs like United Way’s “Working Bridges” that help the working poor overcome daily hurdles that poverty presents outside the workplace, thus enabling them to keep what jobs they have. Job turnover is a serious business expense and employers benefit when they retain good employees by accommodating the occasional family need or commuting challenge. Fletcher Allen and Rhino Foods are two examples of employer partners using the Working Bridges model to successfully reduce turnover and improve the stability of their entry-level workforce.
For some time the Agency has acknowledged the existence of a “benefit cliff,” but has done little to resolve it. It works like this. When a working-poor employee earns $9.50/ hour, is doing a good job, and is offered a raise to $10.00 / hour, and that raise then disqualifies them for a state or federal program such as food, housing or fuel assistance on which their family is dependent, they will make a sound financial decision for their family and turn down the raise. If I were told a $1 raise meant a tax increase of $2, I would do the same. This system is counter to any logic of opportunity and self-sufficiency, and, as many employers will attest, a disincentive to advancement. If the benefit reduction were adjusted to account for a working-poor person’s initiative and not punitive, there would instead be a stimulus to persevere up the economic ladder.
On another front, the Federal government recently levied a $370,000 fine against the Agency for mismanaging the 3SquaresVT food assistance program in Vermont. This brings to nearly half a million dollars resources no longer available to alleviate conditions of poverty or help Vermont’s working poor retain their jobs.
We desperately need to revisit what we spend, how we spend it, how we manage and account for it, and what the real impacts on Vermont’s poor are in the State’s largest agency. Vermont taxpayers commit $350 million to alleviate and reduce poverty. Federal programs fill out the rest.
The people served by the Agency of Human Services are our neighbors and sometimes even family. Surely, we can do better.