Judge upholds cut to Reach Up program

MONTPELIER — A federal judge has upheld cuts to the State’s Reach Up assistance program, squashing a class action lawsuit filed by Vermont Legal Aid in July.

Vermont Legal Aid filed the class-action lawsuit against the Agency of Human Services, asserting the plan to reduce benefits for households who include a disabled adult that also receives Supplemental Security Income was unconstitutional. Christopher Curtis, an attorney with Vermont Legal Aid, filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Burlington, saying the cut amounted to discrimination and a “poor tax.”

Christopher Curtis (courtesy photo)

Christopher Curtis (courtesy photo)

The Reach Up program, offered through the Department for Children and Families, provides cash assistance to families with children for basic needs and services. Eligibility depends on income, resources, living expenses, family members in the household and the length of time a household has already received benefits.

Judge Willliam K. Sessions III dismissed the suit Monday, allowing the cut passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Peter Shumlin earlier this year. As a result, some families will see a reduction up to $125 per month in benefits beginning as early as Dec. 1.

Sessions, in his written decision, acknowledged the impact it would have on families.

“The law at issue in this case targets one of the most vulnerable populations in Vermont: disabled adults raising children in poverty. In an effort to achieve budgetary savings the Legislature has voted to decrease public aid to those families, resulting in what can only be further hardship for parents as they struggle to provide food and shelter for their children,” he wrote.

Curtis expressed his disappointment in a statement Tuesday.

“We’re obviously disappointed with the decision because of the disastrous impact these cuts will have on very low-income Vermonters with disabilities and their families who rely on temporary public assistance,” Curtis said. “What we learned is that the new law is not unconstitutional; it is merely unconscionable.”

Curtis said wants lawmakers to consider repealing the cuts when lawmakers returned to the State House in January for the second half of the biennium.

“These cuts act as a kind of ‘poor tax’ on those who can least afford it,” he said. “If lawmakers truly believe that Vermonters cannot afford any new taxes they should repeal this one.”

Curtis called for impacted families to contact their local legislators and ask them to repeal the cut.

The cut was originally set to take effect in August but was delayed through an agreement by the state and Vermont Legal Aid to provide Sessions with enough time to review the case.

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