Reach Up has fallen down

Reach Up is failing to meet its own statutory goal “to improve the well-being of children by providing for their immediate basic needs, including food, housing, and clothing.” In a report issued last week, Public Assets found that Vermont is not coming close to meeting children’s basic needs.

Reach Up is the state’s primary cash assistance program and provides monthly grants to eligible families with children. A family of four with no other monthly income receives $726 in Reach Up benefits. This is the same amount a family of four received fifteen years ago—not the inflation-adjusted amount, but the exact same amount of money—while the cost of essentials has increased by 44 percent. It was not enough money in 2004 for a family to cover basic expenses, and it is certainly not enough in 2019. Fifteen years ago the benefit covered slightly less than half of a family’s estimated needs; today it covers 34 percent.

This underfunding is tied directly to a budgeting process that lets the state off the hook. In 2004 Reach Up grants were calculated by the Department for Children and Families based on state funds available for the program at the time. Since then the state has allocated Reach Up funding each year assuming the 2004 grant levels. The department can’t increase the benefit levels without additional resources, and the Legislature has not increased the per-family appropriation.

But if there is a time to increase the benefit amount, it is now. With the lowest unemployment rate in decades, and fewer people seeking benefits, more resources should be available to help those who are stuck. While the Legislature can and should take additional action to alleviate poverty in Vermont (a minimum wage increase, an expanded child care subsidy, paid family and medical leave), an increase in Reach Up would provide families with the lowest incomes some immediate relief.

The Legislature has an opportunity this year to correct an injustice that has gone on for far too long. Families with children living in extreme poverty cannot afford the basics—food, clothing, and shelter— even when they receive Reach Up cash assistance. Leaving Vermont children in poverty is not what the law intends Reach Up to do, and it’s not what Vermonters expect.

Posted by Julie Lowell on March 20, 2019 at 10:47 am

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