Thursday, August 23, 2007

Panel paints bleak picture of poverty in state

from The Barre Montpelier Times Argus

By Daniel Barlow Vermont Press Bureau

MONTPELIER – A panel charged with vastly reducing the rate of child poverty in Vermont received some sobering statistics Wednesday.

Leaders of four state organizations that assist low-income families with education, housing and fuel assistance painted a depressing outlook for the future for the poor in Vermont and several said the state was reaching a crisis point.

Poverty has now touched families that have full-time wage earners, smashing the preconception that hard work will lead people out of poverty, testified Tim Searles, the executive director of Chittenden Community Action.

He told the 14-member panel Wednesday during its second organizational meeting that in the mid-1980s, only 20 percent of families that came to the group for assistance included a full-time wage earner. Now, just more than half the families have at least one adult working full-time, but they still need assistance, he explained.

"The belief that work is the path to becoming self-sufficient is now a myth," said Searles, who said housing costs and the steady increase in the cost of energy are typically the biggest strains on families' budgets.

The Vermont Child Poverty Council – a new body of lawmakers, state officials and representatives from several state organizations – has the lofty goal of creating a plan to reduce child poverty in the state by 50 percent in 10 years.

According to 2005 numbers, about 15 percent of Vermont children live in what is considered by the federal government to be poverty. That is 4 percent less than the national average, but state leaders are concerned about a recent upswing in the statistics.

Members plan to hold public hearings in each of the state's 14 counties before issuing a report to the Vermont Legislature in early 2008. But what they heard from advocates and professionals Wednesday is that there are many root causes of poverty and no easy answers to solve the problem.

Housing, health, education and the availability of good jobs are all factors that determine if a family will live in poverty or move up the financial ladder, said Paul Behrman, the chair of the Vermont Head Start Association.

Policy conversations about poverty rarely look at the root causes, Behrman said, and instead are directed at easier fixes. He urged the council to ask the tough questions and dig deep during its research.

He also warned the committee not to use the federal poverty level as their benchmark during the discussions. That number is far below where it should be, he said, and instead suggested using the state's livable wage estimate.

"We're not eradicating the root causes of poverty," he said. "We're not attacking the forces that lead families to poverty. And we need to stop this band-aid approach to the issue."

Sen. Doug Racine, D-Chittenden, who co-chairs the council with Rep. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington, said talking about and then addressing the root causes of the problem is one of the main concerns of the group.

"We want to look at the root causes," he said. "Our approach is a balance between addressing how families end up in poverty and alleviating the symptoms of poverty."

Searles said the cost of energy for Vermont families has steadily become a larger and larger part of the monthly budget. He said the issue is reaching a crisis point and believes this coming winter could be the breaking point for many families.

He was critical of Gov. James Douglas for vetoing the Vermont Legislature's proposal for an all-fuels utility to help Vermonters reduce their energy bills. The governor's plan to expand the state's weatherization program does not go far enough, Searles said.

"Energy costs in this state are reaching a crisis," he said. "Energy costs are now second to housing for many people."

Erhard Mahnke, the coordinator for the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition, warned that across the nation there has been little investment placed in building or renovating cheaper homes for low-income people in several decades.

Affordability standards state that only 30 percent of a person's income should be for housing, but Mahnke said Vermonters in Chittenden County are not paying nearly $800 for a modest two-bedroom apartment.

A person would need to make $18.90 per hour to meet that threshold for that apartment, he said. But nearly 60 percent of adults in the state make less than $15.34 an hour, he added.

"We need more resources for housing at all levels," he told the panel. "Right now the apartments that some Vermonters are living in are infested with cockroaches, have lead paint issues or are overcrowded. These conditions can lead to injury and developmental problems for our children."

Gus Seelig, the director of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, said prior affordable housing projects made the mistake of putting low-income families in one, big, dense public housing unit, which made integrating the poor into the community difficult.

Meanwhile, towns were embracing five-acre zoning laws, which makes building new affordable housing impossible.

"You may not want to go there, but planning and zoning really needs to be part of this conversation," said Seelig, who added that there are several Vermont communities, such as Dorset, Shelburne and Stowe, that may soon finally break ground on new affordable housing projects.

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