DAVE GRAM, Associated Press
MONTPELIER -- A year after a bitter debate that ended with lawmakers imposing a five-year limit on participating in a welfare-to-work program, demand for the program is slackening even before the new time limit takes effect.
Vermont’s Reach Up program provides cash assistance to families whose breadwinners are trying to get back into the workforce. Demand was projected to grow from about 6,500 households last fiscal year to about 6,700 in the current fiscal year, which began July 1.
Instead, it has shrunk to about 6,300 households, saving the state nearly $600,000, said Finance and Management Commissioner Jim Reardon. The program costs $38 million annually.
Dave Yacovone, commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, attributed the reduction partly to an improving economy. But he also speculated that the new limit on the length of participation could be having an early effect. The time limit takes effect in May.
"Anecdotally, we are hearing from our staff that the time limit ... is contributing to people leaving the program early because they know they’re going to have to get off. ... You know that old saying: There’s nothing like a deadline," Yacovone said.
Vermont had been the only state in the country without time limits on its key welfare-to-work program until lawmakers responded to a request from Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin for the new time limits last spring.
Several exemptions apply. Program participants do not have it counted against their five-year lifetime limit when, for instance, they have an infant less than 2 in the home, are caring for a sick or disabled family member or have been victimized by domestic violence. Participants can continue receiving benefits -- typically around $640 a month per household -- after five years if, they’re still unable to find employment in the private sector and take on community-service work.
Yacovone and Chris Curtis, a Vermont Legal Aid lawyer who lobbied against the time limits, both said the reduction in demand on the program also may be due to a growing number of jobs -- especially low-wage, entry-level jobs, available in a Vermont economy still recovering from the Great Recession.
Caseloads were declining before the Great Recession began in 2008, Curtis said, and then were up for several years. "Need was driven by a lack of jobs," Curtis said. "We’re still kind of emerging from that crisis."