MANCHESTER — Poverty in Vermont is hardly a new phenomenon. The state doesn't sit atop an abundance of valuable natural resources, for better or worse, and until relatively recently — sometime in the mid-20th century — the agricultural sector was a major driver of the economy. The state's unemployment rate may be among the nation's lowest, but many jobs don't offer the kinds of wages that readily allow for extras or even necessities. Many people are working two or more jobs, part-time or full-time, to make ends meet.
With state budget resources tight, and a perception that the state's taxing capacity is at or close to a maximum level, concerns about maintaining a viable social safety net for the more than 12 percent of the state's residents who, according to the 2010 U.S. census report, fell under federal levels of poverty — defined as an income of $24,300 for a household of four people — led to the creation in 2013 of a state advisory council to develop recommendations to combat poverty. The number of Vermonters living in poverty has been creeping upwards in recent years, and is especially pronounced among children.
Curtis will be among a group of four people who will present at a forum on poverty in Vermont sponsored by Transition Town Manchester Thursday, April 14, at the Hunter Seminar Room at Burr and Burton Academy. Other speakers at the forum will include Martha Carey, the director of the Community Food Cupboard in Manchester, Chris Oldham, the executive director of the Bennington County Coalition for the Homeless, and State Representative Steve Berry.
"We're in a situation where in this country, we've come from a place where we've declared a war on poverty and we're now in a situation where, after 40 years of attacks on the social safety net, we're at risk of essentially declaring a war on poor people," Curtis said in a phone interview Monday. "We've been told for so long that we can't solve these problems that we've almost forgotten that we can."
Among the ideas contained in the report include boosting housing assistance and support services by investing $2.5 million to strengthen several existing rental and housing programs. Additional support for childcare programs, increases in "Reach Up" grants, a program run by the Department for Children and Families designed to help families with children, and providing adequate funding for Medicaid services are also urged. Funding could come from a $2 occupancy fee on hotels and motels, as well as a cap on the limit of Vermont's pass-through of the federal mortgage interest deduction, according to the report.
While the state government and lawmakers continue to wrestle with tight budgetary constraints, some encouraging progress is being made on the legislative side. Passage of the paid sick leave bill earlier this year, along with the provision to "ban the box" by executive order — the box being the item which asks on a job application form if a prospective employee has a criminal record (this question can be raised in an interview but checking that off on an initial application can be an easy way for a prospective employer to pass on a candidate before hearing the full circumstances), and hopes for more movement on a driver's license restoration program are among them, Curtis said.
Frequently, residents who live in poverty can't afford to pay traffic fines incurred by a speeding ticket or a defective piece of auto equipment. But few can afford not to drive in order to get to work, and have to take the risk of driving before retiring the fine. That increases the chances they could get stopped again and have a license suspended. The fines add up to the point where it becomes impossible to dig their way out of the hole. Some states attorneys have offered "restoration days" to help them get legally squared away, Curtis said.
Ron Dundon is a member of Transition Town Manchester, a community group which formed in 2008 to advocate for sustainable solutions to local issues. He and several other members of the Transition Town group heard Curtis being interviewed on Vermont Public Radio and thought hosting a forum on poverty in Vermont made sense.
Manchester and Dorset are not exempt from homelessness and other issues related to poverty, he said.
"As we've matured as a group we've begun to take a broader view of the community," he said, adding that if left to fester, poverty-related issues will have even more severe impacts on the state's budget than it does at present.
It's a growing factor for schools — the number of students now eligible for free and reduced lunches, a standard barometer of poverty, is now at nearly 44 percent of the student body at Manchester Elementary Middle School, according to MEMS's principal, Thomas Quinn, for example.
Each of the speakers will have about 10 minutes to present at the forum with opportunities for questions and answers. Rep. Steve Barry will be on hand to supply a legislative update as well, Dundon said.
The forum will start at 6:30 p.m. on April 14.