Reach Up Funding: Ending Child Poverty is Within Our Reach
Reach Up is tasked with improving the well-being of children by providing for their immediate basic needs, including food, housing, transportation, and clothing. However, the program has never been fully funded and so continues to fall short of its objectives. With 35% of children between the ages of 0 and 8 in Vermont living in households that make less than 200% of the federal poverty-level income, we must do more in order to ensure that families have adequate resources to meet their children’s basic needs. Voices for Vermont's Children and our partners seek to improve the effectiveness and equity of Reach Up by increasing benefits, prioritizing housing stability, and modernizing program parameters to reduce barriers for adult caregivers.
Current basic needs grants to families are based on 2019 cost of living figures, already 7% below the current standard, then cut to 49.6 percent of that total (the “ratable reduction”). Year after year this unfunded obligation is noted by the Legislature, but despite some modest increases in the last two legislative sessions, neither the administration nor the Legislature has ever appropriated adequate funds to meet the statutory purpose of the program.
In fact, whenever caseloads decline, the unspent funds are swept from the budget and spent elsewhere, rather than used to advance program goals. Advocates have consistently stated for years that Reach Up must be fully funded to the point that the Department for Children and Families can demonstrate that children’s basic needs are consistently met.
The Governor’s Recommended FY23 Budget proposed a significant funding decrease for Reach Up, based on a projection for caseload reductions that Alliance members have found to be unrealistic. The House Human Services Committee has agreed with that critique and is recommending to the House Appropriations Committee that the FY23 budget not include the proposed reduction, and that any “savings” that result from declining caseload in FY23 be reinvested through one-time payments to Reach Up families. Unfortunately, the House Appropriations committee has decided to agree with the Governor's recommendation on this issue.
The House Human Services Committee also advanced H. 464, a bill containing a number of improvements to the Reach Up program, including several provisions imported from H.672. While the base grant calculations are not addressed in this bill, there is an increase to earned income set-aside, which would allow participants to gain economic stability as they engage in paid work, rather than immediately seeing their Reach Up benefit reduced to offset incoming wages. Currently the first $250/month and 25% of subsequent income is disregarded when determining eligibility; this bill proposes to increase the initial set-aside to $350. In addition, the bill would double the amount of child support that is disregarded in determining eligibility from $50 to $100/month.
H. 464 also proposes changes to the Reach Up work requirement. The proposed change would shift Reach Up to a "universal engagement model that aims to engage each participating family, to the best of their ability, in improving the family's social, emotional, and economic well being." Voices strongly supports this change, which expands the activities that count as "work," drawing from research on what works. Voices strongly supports this change, which expands the activities that count as engagement, drawing from research on what works.
The House Human Services Committee passed the bill unanimously. The bill is now being considered by the House Appropriations Committee.
What’s missing from the bill? H.464 does not explicitly address housing insecurity, which is all but a given for the estimated 60% of Reach Up participants who do not receive public housing subsidies, as the basic needs grant falls short of fair market rents in virtually every community. Voices is exploring other approaches to directing adequate housing support to children and families in extreme poverty to prevent the damaging disruption of homelessness.