Child poverty rates 'terrify'
By DANIEL BARLOW Vermont Press Bureau | August 18,2007
MONTPELIER - During July, Melinda Bussino saw 28 new homeless people, including 10 children, enter her Brattleboro food shelf looking for something to eat, something to wear and some help in their lives.
"It's an absolutely terrifying statistic," said Bussino, the executive director of the Brattleboro Area Drop-In Center. "It's the scariest thing I can tell someone. Every year, demand goes up, but we've never seen it like this."
At Rutland's Community Cupboard there are similar sad stories. Coordinator Sue Bassett said usage has gone up 30 percent a year there since 2005. She has met families with young children who are homeless and live in tents in the woods or surf from couch to couch to survive.
"Some of these families have medical problems that keep them in poverty, and others are the working poor who aren't making enough at their $10-an-hour job for their families," she said. "Health issues and finding affordable housing seem to be the two biggest problems we encounter."
Rising child poverty rates in the Green Mountain state have concerned advocates working with the poor. This year, lawmakers in Montpelier took notice and formed a new legislative group called the Vermont Child Poverty Council. It has a lofty goal: Reduce the state's child poverty rate by 50 percent in 10 years.
The 10-member council, chaired by Sen. Doug Racine, D-Chittenden, and Rep. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington, plans to hold public hearings in all of the state's counties this fall before issuing a report to the Vermont Legislature in January.
Racine, chairman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, said the council will not just look at the roots of poverty in Vermont, but also put together an action plan that will draw together resources from private and public sectors to tackle the problem.
Some possible solutions are already clear, he said, including increased job training to lift families out of poverty and access to health care and affordable housing. But the council wants to dig deeper than that, he explained.
"It's pretty obvious to say that some families need to make more money because their kids are hungry and they need housing," Racine said. "But we want to look closer and find the ways we can help these families get out of poverty."
The council has set a strict agenda of visiting all 14 counties in the state this fall because it wants to hear directly from Vermonters in poverty and the advocates and volunteers on the ground who are already assisting them via community organizations, said Pugh, who is also a social worker.
"We want to visit the four corners of the state and meet directly with people," she said. "It would be easy to hold a public hearing in Montpelier that would be filled with policymakers, but that's not what we want to do."
Vermont fares better than the national average when it comes to children living in poverty. Advocates attribute that to some of the state's programs and policies, such as Dr. Dynasaur, the state's health insurance for residents under the age of 18.
Still, there is little solace to be found in the poverty figures. About 15 percent of the state's children - or approximately 20,000 kids - are living in what is considered poverty, according to 2005 numbers from the National Center for Children in Poverty.
That same year, the national average was 19 percent, but Vermont's rate has trended upward recently after declines in the early 2000s. And there may be an even worse truth beyond that statistics, depending on a person's opinion of what should be considered poverty.
Carlen Finn, executive director of Voices for Vermont's Children, a child advocacy group based in Montpelier, said that about 33 percent of families in the state live at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
In 2005, the federal poverty level for a single parent with two children was $15,000 a year, she said. But even at double that amount, a single parent would have an extremely difficult time paying for child care, food, housing and other expenses, Finn said.
Even if the council can't achieve its long-term goal of slashing child poverty levels, it does bring the issue back into the mainstream for more well-off Vermonters to think about, Finn said.
"This is making the issue of child poverty, and of poverty in general actually, visible again," she explained. "We're not just saying it exists, we're saying we want to talk about it and see what we can do about it."
Finn is mostly responsible for lawmakers deciding to tackle the issue. Racine asked her earlier this year to prepare information for a daylong hearing before his committee on child poverty. That presentation shocked and motivated some lawmakers, Finn said. So, she pointed to similar efforts to combat child poverty in Connecticut and Great Britain that have been successful.
"I said to the committee, 'Why don't you try and do something about this,'" Finn recalled. "There is a vision here. Let's take the issue up."
Soon after, Racine began working on a bill in his committee, creating the council. It was then sent to the House, where Pugh was brought in to tackle the issue on her end.
"I think a lot of us found what is happening here in the state to be unacceptable," Pugh said.
Bussino said she is pleased that Montpelier lawmakers are taking aim at the child poverty issue. From her experience assisting families, she has seen finding affordable housing and a job that pays a livable wage to be major stumbling blocks.
Parents without medical insurance are also at risk of being one health disaster away from poverty, she said. Finding affordable child care is also a major issue that needs to be investigated, she added.
"In Brattleboro we are now seeing one-bedroom apartments go for $700 and up, whereas they used to be in the $450 or $500 range," she said. "There is a dramatic need for more affordable housing in the state."
Bassett had similar advice for the council.
"Housing is probably the biggest issue," she said. "More and more families cannot find affordable places to live, and that's putting them and their children in very dangerous situations."
Contact Daniel Barlow at Daniel.Barlow@rutlandherald.com.