State of Need: How Vermont Tried and Failed to Cut Child Poverty in Half

By Paul Heintz

Cathy Duncan was doing what she could to provide for her kids. The 45-year-old divorced mother of three had returned to school, landed a steady job and bought a modest house in downtown Johnson.

But, as she told a panel of Vermont state legislators, cabinet members and low-income advocates in November 2007, Duncan still hadn’t escaped the poverty she had known for much of her life.

“I am one of the successes,” she said during a public forum at the Morristown Elementary School library. “But when I live from paycheck to paycheck and sometimes it doesn’t make it, doesn’t pay all the bills, I don’t feel much like a success.”

For weeks that fall, members of the newly established Vermont Child Poverty Council had been traveling the state’s 14 counties with great fanfare, hosting evening discussions in crowded school cafeterias, gymnasiums and libraries. They were calling on poor parents such as Duncan to share their stories and solutions. “I am here to represent people in poverty,” she told them, according to a Stowe Reporter account of the meeting.

Earlier that year, the State of Vermont had made a colossal commitment: to cut child poverty in half within a decade. A new law, passed by the Democratic legislature and signed by Republican governor Jim Douglas, had established the 14-member council and charged it with carrying out the state’s ambitious goal by June 30, 2017.

“The point was to change the conversation instead of going through yet another year of trying to get a little more funding for this program or that program,” recalled former state senator Doug Racine, who championed the legislation and then chaired the council in its early years. “We really needed to elevate the prominence of poverty in this state.”

But by the time Vermont’s 10-year deadline passed this June, the goal had long since been forgotten — and the state had come nowhere close to meeting it.

In 2007, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 15,907 Vermont children, or 12.4 percent, were living below the federal poverty line. By 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, the number of children in poverty had declined, slightly, to 15,469, but the rate had increased to 13.3 percent.

Such figures fail to capture the true extent of economic hardship that Vermont’s children face. Most experts agree that the federal poverty line, developed in the 1960s, is outdated and underestimates the income it takes to survive. At present, the poverty line is drawn at $12,060 a year for an individual and $24,600 for a family of four — up slightly from a decade ago.

At their earliest meetings in 2007, members of the Child Poverty Council questioned whether they might be wiser to measure the number of young people living at 200 percent of the federal poverty line. By that metric, the state has done no better: From 2007 to 2015, the number of poor kids in Vermont rose from 32 percent to 35 percent.

To be sure, Vermont is not an island — and this was no ordinary decade. A year after the council toured the state, a financial crisis plunged the country into the deepest economic downturn in nearly a century. The national child poverty rate soared from 18 percent in 2007 to a peak of 22.6 percent in 2012, in tandem with the unemployment rate. As parents lost their jobs, children suffered.

“I don’t want to use this as an excuse, but I really don’t think we could have made the kind of dent we wanted to make because of the recession,” said Voices for Vermont’s Children executive director Carlen Finn, who worked with Racine to establish the half-in-10 target.

Whether a small state, acting in isolation, could have achieved so bold a goal absent the Great Recession is another question entirely. For years, the costs of housing, health care, childcare and higher education have outpaced the growth of wages, in Vermont and around the country. The result has been a rise in economic inequality and the emergence of what sociologists fear is a permanent underclass, trapped by generational poverty.

“It’s very hard to get ahead when you’re getting going at a different starting line in life than others,” said state Assistant Attorney General Christopher Curtis, who spent a decade fighting poverty at Vermont Legal Aid.

As Vermont grappled with the economic downturn, attention to the Child Poverty Council waned. Though required by statute to meet six times a year and update its recommendations annually, the panel was largely abandoned in the early 2010s. And while it has been rejuvenated in recent years, few lawmakers seem to remember the commitment Vermont made.

In interviews this month, the state’s most powerful politicians — Gov. Phil Scott, Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) — each expressed ignorance of the half-in-10 pledge.

“I don’t think anyone but the authors remember that specific goal,” Ashe said.

Though the state never engaged in the war on poverty described in the 2007 bill, it continued to do what it had always done: take incremental, ad hoc steps to support the poor. In recent years, lawmakers have expanded health insurance coverage, raised the minimum wage, increased childcare subsidies and enhanced welfare benefits.

To be sure, Vermont is doing better than most states. Its child poverty rate is tied for the third lowest in the nation. And the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2017 Kids Count report, which measures 16 indicators of child well-being, found that young people were better off only in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

That’s cold comfort to Vermonters such as Duncan.

Ten years ago, when she addressed the Child Poverty Council, Duncan was beginning to feel “more self-sufficient,” she recalled last week. But a few years later, she started falling behind on mortgage payments after her failure to keep up on paperwork cost her a federal housing subsidy. Duncan lost her Main Street home in 2014 — the same year a disability put her out of work.

Now suffering from arthritis and diabetes, the 55-year-old woman is trying to survive on $933 a month in Social Security disability payments, $825 of which goes to rent. She can no longer afford a car and relies on a nephew to drive her to the grocery store once a month.

“Life’s been throwing punches that I just can’t seem to dodge,” she said.

Duncan worries most about her three grown children, now 24, 22 and 20 years old. Only the oldest enrolled in college, and he lasted there just a year. The youngest was still in high school when foreclosure forced them into a crowded two-bedroom apartment. She wonders whether they will escape the poverty cycle she could not.

Because her new apartment is barely a block from her old home, Duncan has trouble forgetting what she lost.

“You drive by and see it and think: How come?” she said. “But it is what it is.”

Target Practice

In 1999, prime minister Tony Blair pledged to cut child poverty in half in Great Britain over the next decade and eradicate it completely by 2020. The idea soon crossed the Atlantic, and, in 2005, Connecticut set its own half-in-10 goal.

To Jodie Levin-Epstein, then the deputy director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Law and Social Policy, such targets made perfect sense for states.

“How do you know what you’re accomplishing unless you set yourself some kind of goal?” she said. “This is what metrics do for us. They help us see how far we’ve gotten and how far we’ve got to go.”

Levin-Epstein worked with Finn, Racine and Rep. Ann Pugh (D-South Burlington) to bring the concept to Vermont. Robin Lunge, then a legislative lawyer, helped draft the bill, S.177, and staffed the council it created.

“I don’t think people were particularly thinking, Is this a realistic goal? or anything like that,” recalled Lunge, who now serves on the health care-regulating Green Mountain Care Board. “It was more like, How do we get attention focused on these issues?

Unlike similar state commissions created in Delaware, Minnesota and Oregon, Vermont’s called on its members — six legislators, four cabinet members and four advocates — to visit every county in search of ideas. By staying “away from Montpelier,” Pugh explained in a contemporaneous report, “we could hear directly from people who never could get to the capital.”

The tour resulted in something just as important: coaxing the stigma of poverty out of the shadows — if only for an evening.

At a November 2007 stop in Middlebury, council members heard from a 16-year-old girl who recalled bringing a can of corn to school in second grade to help fill a box for a family in need of a Christmas dinner.

“My class colored the box to look like a present, and we talked about how bad it must suck to have other people buy your food for you,” she told the council. “That night, when I went home, the box was sitting on my kitchen table … I felt like a dirtbag.”

The girl’s story, Racine said earlier this month, “still can bring tears to my eyes.”

It’s not unique. According to the state Department for Children and Families, more than 26,000 children receive assistance every month through the 3SquaresVT food stamp program. More than 44 percent of Vermont’s children were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches last school year, according to the state Agency of Education.

Last week, at the Northeast Kingdom Community Action Agency’s St. Johnsbury outpost, a 27-year-old woman who identified herself only as Jessie said she knows what it’s like to eat on a budget.

“I’ve been living off of cans of SpaghettiOs and hot dogs my entire life,” she said. “Growing up, you’d see kids at school when they would have nice-looking backpacks or just nice clothes in general. We would get hand-me-downs a lot.”

Neither Jessie nor her high school sweetheart, Justin, has been able to hold down jobs. So, like Jessie’s mother did, they are raising children on welfare: their 9- and 6-year-old boys.

“My son’s been playing baseball for the last four years,” said Jessie, who has never left this faded manufacturing town near the New Hampshire border. “I was able to afford it when I was working, for the most part. But now that I’m broke, I’m not going to be able to afford to keep going with that.”

She added emphatically, “I want my kids to be able to take part in stuff like that.”

For Emily Raymond, it’s the “bigger-ticket items,” such as summer vacations, that she would like to provide her four children, who range in age from 5 to 15. “But,” the 42-year-old single mother said, “it makes the treats you have more meaningful — like ordering a pizza or going out for creemees.”

With the help of the Reach Up welfare program, which provides cash assistance to poverty-stricken parents, as well as 3SquaresVT, Social Security and Section 8 housing, Raymond can house and feed her family — but not much more than that.

“The kids know we’re poor, and they know we can’t say yes to everything,” said Raymond, who suffers mental disabilities that keep her from working. “It’s tough when other kids get things they can’t have or do things they can’t do, but I feel my kids are humble and grateful — two values that are important to this family, anyway.”

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