Suit Aims To Halt Benefits Cuts

Published: 8/4/2016 4:07:49 PM
Modified: 7/25/2015 12:00:00 AM
Montpelier — Vermont Legal Aid filed a lawsuit in federal court Thursday seeking to stop implementation of a $125 reduction in the monthly Reach Up benefit for hundreds of Vermont families.

The Department for Children and Families recently sent notices to 860 Reach Up households saying they would see a $125 reduction in their monthly benefit beginning Aug. 1 if an adult family member receives supplemental security income, a federal disability benefit. The reduction would impact more than 15 percent of the homes that receive the program’s cash benefits.

The class-action lawsuit alleges that the reduction, which the Legislature approved in the fiscal year 2016 state budget, is unconstitutional and that it discriminates against households with family members with a disability.

Christopher Curtis, the Vermont Legal Aid attorney who filed the suit, has been a vocal opponent of the new Reach Up policy, categorizing it as a “poor tax.”

“Low-income people should not be targeted just because they happen to have a disability for a cut in their benefits,” Curtis said Thursday.

Curtis said the issues in the case are primarily related to laws and benefits at a federal level — including the Americans with Disabilities Act and Social Security policy.

According to a statement issued by Legal Aid, courts have halted similar cuts to temporary assistance for needy families grant programs in other states. Reach Up, Vermont’s TANF program, helps some 5,200 households statewide. Funded partially by the state and partially by the federal government, the program aims to help families with children meet basic needs and services, the state website says. It includes a work requirement.

Federal courts issued injunctions against policies in Washington and West Virginia that would have counted the SSI benefits of children as income, thereby reducing their TANF benefit. Vermont’s law only counts the SSI benefits of adults, not children.

Reached on Friday, DCF Commissioner Ken Schatz said that the Attorney General’s Office will handle the litigation regarding the new policy.

DCF officials have defended the reduction in the past, noting that it brings the Reach Up program in line with other state benefit programs, all of which factor SSI in as income.

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