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Court Upholds Benefit Cuts to Low-Income Disabled Families, Dismisses Lawsuit

Posted November 12, 2015

A federal district court judge dismissed a class action lawsuit brought by low-income parents with disabilities late Monday afternoon. Judge Willliam K. Sessions, III found that a new law reducing public assistance to families with disabled parents receiving Supplemental Security Income is constitutional and violated no federal law. The ruling means that affected families receiving Reach Up benefits will face monthly reductions up to $125 starting as soon as December 1st. Vermont Legal Aid brought the lawsuit on behalf of affected families arguing the cuts violated their due process and equal protection rights and other federal laws. Legal Aid has widely criticized the new law calling it a “poor tax” targeting Vermonters who cannot afford a significant loss of monthly income.

Judge William K. Sessions III agreed with the plaintiffs that the law targets poor Vermonters. “The law at issue in this case targets one of the most vulnerable populations in Vermont: disabled adults raising children in poverty. In an effort to achieve budgetary savings the Legislature has voted to decrease public aid to those families, resulting in what can only be further hardship for parents as they struggle to provide food and shelter for their children,” he wrote in conclusion.

In the end, however, the court agreed with the state that notices sent to affected families were sufficient and that the legislative process provided all the process that was due. The court found no intent to discriminate against Vermonters with disabilities because the targeted reduction was for budgetary reasons and the state had a rational basis – budget savings – on which to change the law. As a result, the Judge dismissed the case.

Vermont Legal Aid had argued that because SSI recipients are excluded from the Reach Up program altogether their income should not be counted to reduce Reach Up grants. Other states that consider SSI include recipients as part of the assistance group. “We’re obviously disappointed with the decision because of the disastrous impact these cuts will have on very low-income Vermonters with disabilities and their families who rely on temporary public assistance,” said Christopher Curtis, of Vermont Legal Aid who brought the case on behalf of the plaintiffs. “What we learned is that the new law is not unconstitutional; it is merely unconscionable,” he said.

Curtis said that he hoped lawmakers would consider repealing the cuts when the legislature reconvenes in January. “These cuts act as a kind of ‘poor tax’ on those who can least afford it,” he said. “If lawmakers truly believe that Vermonters cannot afford any new taxes they should repeal this one,” said Curtis. “It’s an especially cruel irony that the state currently enjoys a $4 million surplus – an amount that more than covers this cut targeting the most vulnerable Vermonters,” said Curtis. He said that families suffering from the effects of the benefit cut should contact their local legislators and ask them to repeal the cut to the Reach Up program.

Cuts to the Reach Up program were originally set to go into effect in August but were delayed by agreement of the parties to allow Judge Sessions time to consider the case. “We do want to acknowledge the Secretary (Cohen) and the Commissioner (Schatz) for their agreement to continue benefits while the case was pending,” said Curtis.

For a link to the full press release, click here.

 



Low-Income Vermonters with Disabilities Sue State Over Benefit Cuts

Posted July 27, 2015

Low-income Vermonters with disabilities are fighting back against state mandated reductions to their household Reach Up benefits. Vermont Legal Aid filed a class action lawsuit in federal court today on behalf of affected Vermonters alleging that a new law is unconstitutional and discriminates against households with family members with a disabling condition.

The new law counts $125 of adult Supplemental Security Income (SSI) income against a household’s temporary cash assistance (or “Reach Up”) benefits. The plaintiffs are asking the court for an injunction to stop the cuts from taking effect, and to declare the reductions unconstitutional, discriminatory and illegal.

“I feel like I’m being punished for having a disability,” said Robin Wheeler of Williamstown, one of the named plaintiffs in the suit. Ms. Wheeler suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, agoraphobia, anxiety and depression. She said she has to meet the needs of herself and her 15-year old daughter and cannot afford any reduction in benefits.

“The State of Vermont is picking the pockets of the poor and disabled to solve its budget problems,” said Legal Aid attorney Christopher Curtis, who brought the suit on behalf of the plaintiffs. “It’s unconscionable, it’s unfair, and it’s unlawful,” said Curtis.

Curtis said the benefit cuts are unnecessary pointing to recent news of a $21 million budget surplus. “Instead, the state has elected to levy a ‘poor tax’ on people with disabilities,” he said. “We cannot afford to have low-income families and children sacrificed on the altar of austerity,” said Curtis.

Notices were recently mailed to approximately 860 Vermont households advising them that their benefits would be reduced starting on August 1st. Many households were taken by surprise.

“I had no idea this was coming, and I think it is totally wrong,” said another plaintiff, Tina Bidwell of Johnson. Ms. Bidwell is blind and cares for her grandson. “I barely get by with my disability and I can’t afford the state taking away our benefits,” she said. Because she is blind, Ms. Bidwell has to pay for transportation to the grocery store, her doctor’s office, and other appointments.

Curtis pointed out that the state has told beneficiaries in its notice that the cuts will become effective immediately even if they appeal the decision reducing benefits starting August 1st. “Only the court has the power to stop these catastrophic reductions from taking place,” said Curtis. “So, we are asking for immediate relief to stop families from being harmed while the case is pending.”

The change in state statute relates to how benefits are computed. Currently, SSI beneficiaries are not considered part of a Reach Up assistance unit and their disability benefits are not counted in determining Reach Up grants. The new law set to go into effect August 1st seeks to count $125 of any adult SSI benefit received by a family member against the remaining family Reach Up grants resulting in a dollar-for-dollar reduction. The new law was part of a $1.6 million cut in the FY 2016 budget that passed over the objections of Vermont Legal Aid and other advocates.

The lawsuit alleges that the new policy deprives affected Vermonters of due process and equal protection because there is insufficient opportunity for pre- or post-termination relief and because it treats similarly situated families differently. It also alleges violations of federal and state law for treating certain households differently on the basis of disability status and for counting adult SSI income against the Reach Up grants, which Legal Aid contends violates Social Security law.

“It’s not enough that these families are already among the very poorest in Vermont. Now the state is singling out certain families with special needs resulting from disability for unequal treatment and benefit reductions,” said Curtis. “We will fight on behalf of low-income Vermont families with disabilities to stop these cuts from taking effect.”

Federal courts in Washington and West Virginia have issued injunctions in the past to stop similar cuts for children with SSI income whose households also receive temporary assistance for needy families (TANF) grants. Reach Up is Vermont’s TANF program. The proposed reductions in Vermont count adult SSI income, but do not count a child’s SSI income against a Reach Up grant.

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For more on this story, view the VT Digger coverage here and their original report on this reduction to Reach Up benefits here. To view this press release on the Vermont Legal Aid website, click here.

 



Shumlin Signs Reach Up Bill Into Law

Posted June 18, 2014

Earlier today at a ceremony in Winooski Governor Peter Shumlin signed H.790, An Act Relating to Reach Up, Reach Ahead and the Enhanced Child Care Services Subsidy Program, into law.

The new policy measures are designed to soften the so‐called ‘benefits cliff’ for welfare recipients. As originally envisioned, the legislation would have allowed working Reach Up participants to earn and save more before benefits were reduced. The compromise that ultimately passed allows working participants to disregard an additional $50 earned each month before benefits are calculated and correspondingly reduced. In addition, it softens the off‐ramp from the program by:

• preserving eligibility for child care subsidies for an additional year for people leaving Reach Up through expansion of the Reach Ahead program (increased to 24 months from 12). Here are the details:

• Extends childcare benefit (100% subsidy) for a full second year for Reach Ahead participants

• Uses caseload savings to pay for childcare benefit; if there’s enough funding, the DCF and Finance Commissioners can jointly decide to extend the benefit beyond 24 months

• Increases the earned income disregard (EID) from $200 to $250 (percentage of remaining unsubsidized income remains the same at 25%; original proposal was to increase EID to $300 plus 50% of remaining income)

• Reduces 1st six months of Reach Ahead’s TANF‐funded food assistance from $100 to $50 a month to pay for part of the increased EID; keeps 2nd six months of Reach Ahead food benefit at $50

• Provides a nominal $5 per month food benefit for 2nd year Reach Ahead participants

• Food benefits for families in their first six months of Reach Ahead are grandfathered at $100 for the first six months and $50 for months 7 through 12

• Case managers are to meet with participating families to make them aware of program benefit changes and advise them on how to maximize new opportunities without a corresponding loss of benefits.

• DCF is to explore feasibility of transitional food benefit program that would allow drawing additional federal funds to offset food assistance during the first five months of Reach Ahead, freeing up State dollars to increase the EID; report due to the Health Care Oversight Committee by October 15.

• DCF also to report to the committee on the estimated cost of the EID and child care subsidies and projected caseload reduction savings.

• NO increase to the asset limit, which was originally proposed to increase from $2,000 to $5,000 (BUT: the cost of increasing the asset limit is modest and could easily be brought back next year, paid for through use of the additional federal $$ from the transitional food benefit program).

• NO across the board reduction in benefits (originally estimated to be $19 per household to pay for EID)

• Additional childcare subsidy and EID do not take effect until July 1, 2015; childcare subsidy only takes effect if there are sufficient savings from caseload reduction to pay for it

On Monday’s broadcast of Equal Time Radio on WDEV 96.1 FM/550 AMAmy Shollenberger spoke with Chris Curtis, Staff Attorney at Vermont Legal Aid, and Erhard Mahnke, Coordinator for VAHC, about the bill, and a variety of issues related to combating poverty, including the Reach-Up Program and affordable housing in Vermont.

Listen to the full broadcast here.

 



Meeting dates announced for Reach Up Policy Work Group

Posted July 9, 2013

The Reach Up Policy Work Group will be meeting on the 2nd and 4th Thursday of the month in July, August, September, and October. The work group’s first meeting will be held this Thursday, July 11th from 9:00am-12:00pm at the VTC campus, Tafts Corners, Williston. Subsequent meetings will be at the AHS Secretary’s office at 208 Hurricane Lane. Specific details, including the participant list, will be posted prior to the first meeting. Meetings are open to the public and minutes will be posted . 

For more information on the meeting dates and times and meeting minutes, click HERE

Work Group membership

 

 



Vermont plan to limit welfare-to-work draws fire

Posted April 23, 2013

By Dave Gram, Associated Press. Reposted from the Brattleboro Reformer.

“MONTPELIER — For Roslyn Haldane and Jen Grey, a plan by Gov. Peter Shumlin’s administration to put new limits on a welfare-to-work program could create a nasty domino effect.

Grey could lose the $640 monthly check she receives from the state, which would force the extended Barre family to combine two households into one. Haldane would have to ask the disabled man she cares for to move, costing her the $2,400-a-month state stipend she gets for providing that care and forcing the man to find a new situation…”

Link to Brattleboro Reformer Article 

View PDF of Full Brattleboro Reformer Article

 



Times Argus Editorial – Too far a reach

Posted

Editorial. Reposted from the Times Argus, April 21, 2013.

“Ordinarily, major reforms receive close attention from affected groups and from legislators keen to study a problem and examine solutions. But sometimes a governor will launch an initiative from within the inner sanctum of his administration, without warning or the kind of preliminary work that is designed to build support from the public and the Legislature. That is what has happened with Shumlin…

There was moving testimony in the House from people in the program about the difficulties they encounter in finding stable employment, housing, transportation and child care, and not for want of trying. Cutting off benefits could throw a small core of troubled families into chaos, introducing new instability among people struggling to get by…”

View PDF of Full Editorial

 



IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: Times Argus Editorial – On being mediocre

Posted April 9, 2013

Reposted from the Barre Montpelier Times Argus, March 29, 2013.

“The Rule of Demonstrable Mediocrity prevails in places where the paramount concern is to save money. Those who believe the public interest sometimes demands more than the minimal expenditure of money know that the rule maintains a tenacious hold…

One example is the administration’s plan to change the state’s principal welfare program, Reach Up, which is designed to move low-income residents from welfare to work…Only a tiny fraction of Reach Up participants ever reach the five-year limit, but it can be surmised that they are the most troubled or impaired among the program’s job seekers and there are probably good reasons, beyond laziness, why they have been unable to achieve independence. Yet the new strictures on the program would throw their lives into chaos and impose unnecessary hardships…”

Link to Full Times Argus Editorial

View PDF of Full Times Argus Editorial

 



VTDIGGER – Advocates make their cases before Senate Appropriations Committee

Posted April 2, 2013

By Alicia Freese. Reposted from VTDigger, April 1, 2013.

“Now that certain warning cries and requests for the 2014 budget have gone unheeded in the House, advocates are turning their attention to the Senate. On Monday afternoon, the Senate Appropriations Committee listened to advocates detail their needs in advance of taking up the budget bill passed by the House last week. The testimony lasted three hours — each advocate was allotted five minutes to make their case, and every slot was filled, leaving some on a waiting list…Not everyone was there to solicit funding. Many advocates spent their allotted time to warn against the proposed caps to Reach Up, the state’s family welfare program.

Advocates described the Reach Up cap — proposed by the Shumlin administration and included in revised form in the House’s budget — as a rash policy plan that will end up costing the state more money.

Representatives from housing organizations asked the senators to consider the ‘ripple effect’ that a cap on Reach Up would have on their programs…”

Link to Full VTDigger.org Article 

View PDF of Full VTDigger Article

 



Times Argus – Welfare cap debate: ‘Unable’ or ‘unwilling’?

Posted April 1, 2013

By Peter Hirschfeld. Reposted from the Barre Montpelier Times Argus, March 30, 2013.

“MONTPELIER — The battle in Montpelier over whether to impose a five-year lifetime cap on welfare benefits peaked this week when House lawmakers gave final approval to a budget that includes the new limits.


But the House proposal has drawn fire from both sides on this controversial issue. And while welfare-reform advocates say the House version doesn’t go far enough, advocates for low-income Vermonters say it will exact an undue toll on poor people.

..”

Link to full Times Argus article 

View PDF of full Times Argus article

 

 



House Human Services Committee supports five-year cap on welfare benefits

Posted March 24, 2013

By Alicia Freese. Reposted from VTDigger.org, March 22, 2013. 

The House Human Services Committee voted Friday to support a 60-month cap on the state’s family welfare program.

The committee’s endorsement came with a number of caveats and changes, but it keeps in tact the main precept of the Shumlin administration’s proposal — that the state should limit welfare benefits.

The proposal enacts a firm five-year cap on Reach Up benefits. It pushes back the onset of the cap, giving all but 20 families who are currently under sanctions, seven more months to prepare for it. The proposal also offers a handful of exemptions that would extend the cap for some families, and it carves out a one-time appropriation to provide additional services to families approaching the 60-month limit…A handful of members, including the Human Services Committee chair, Rep. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington, remain adamantly opposed to the recommendations sent to Appropriations…”

Link to Full VTDigger.org Article 

Read Full PDF of VTDigger Article

 



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