VTDigger: Legislative Wrap-up: Welfare reform

Full article at Vermont Digger
by Alicia Freese | May 15, 2013

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.

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