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Welfare Reforms Clear Hurdles To Professional Advancement

Peter Hirschfeld
Heather Newcomb, a social worker at Vermont Works for Women, is congratulated by Gov. Peter Shumlin during a bill-signing ceremony for legislation that will remove barriers to work for welfare recipients.

Desiree Suggs is only 22 years old. But the Burlington mother has already seen her share of hard luck.

“I went through the struggle of being homeless and having no benefits and sleeping on a park bench with my 7, 8-month old baby,” Suggs says.

The experience would prove a watershed for Suggs, who decided to reach out for help, enroll in Vermont’s welfare program, and begin to build a life for her and her now 2-year-old son. But when Suggs finally landed the job she’d been working so hard to get, she came face to face with the same bureaucratic phenomenon that has hampered the climb from poverty for other working mothers.

“And as soon as I reported my change for my income, they cut my benefits completely off and I couldn’t pay my back rent that I owed, or my electric bill,” Suggs says.

At a ceremony at the O’Brien Community Center in Winooski on Wednesday, Gov. Peter Shumlin signed into law a bill that begins to solve a glitch in the welfare system that can discourage low-income Vermonters from taking good-paying jobs.

“If you’re in a system where you get offered a raise from your boss and you get punished for taking it, what does that say about the incentive to work?” Shumlin said.

The problem is known as a “benefits cliff,” and it occurs when an increase in personal income results is benefit losses that exceed the value of the raise.

The new legislation will allow beneficiaries of Vermont’s welfare program, known as Reach Up, to keep up to $50 more in earnings per month before they see a drop in benefits. The legislation will also extend for a year the childcare subsidies that working mothers like Suggs would otherwise lose as they transition out of the welfare system.

Heather Newcomb, a social worker at Vermont Works for Women who less than 10 years ago was a Reach Up recipient herself, says the reforms passed by lawmakers this year begin to fix a welfare system that can sabotage the people it’s designed to lift out of poverty. Newcomb experienced the pitfalls of the system firsthand when, while still on Reach Up, she earned a promotion at work.

“It changed my monthly income by a mere $40, but it reduced my monthly benefits by $100,” Newcomb said Wednesday. “So I was actually in a worse financial situation than if I had stayed at my previous wage.”

The legislation doesn’t go as far as some advocates had hoped. And it doesn’t address the so-called asset test, which prevents welfare recipients from accumulating more than $2,000 in savings without being kicked off the program.

But it’s part of a package of provisions, including increased rental subsidies and expanded pre-kindergarten services, that advocates say will make a meaningful difference in the lives of poor Vermonters.

Suggs is now working fulltime to earn her high school diploma through the New Horizons education program at the Lund Center. She says she expects to graduate in October, and to begin working fulltime soon after.

“In order to get things in life, you have to move forward to get them, instead of just sitting there and thinking people are going to hand it to you,” Suggs says. “So I just had to do it for my baby, because I didn’t want to be homeless anymore.”

This story was updated at 9:07 a.m.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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