Court Upholds Benefit Cuts to Low-Income Disabled Families, Dismisses Lawsuit
“Poor Tax” Will Take Effect In December
A federal district court judge dismissed a class action lawsuit brought by low-income parents with disabilities late Monday afternoon. Judge Willliam K. Sessions III found that a new law reducing public assistance to families with disabled parents receiving Supplemental Security Income is constitutional and violated no federal law. The ruling means that affected families receiving Reach Up benefits will face monthly reductions up to $125 starting as soon as December 1. Vermont Legal Aid brought the lawsuit on behalf of affected families arguing the cuts violated their due process and equal protection rights and other federal laws. Legal Aid has widely criticized the new law calling it a “poor tax” targeting Vermonters who cannot afford a significant loss of monthly income.
Judge Sessions agreed with the plaintiffs that the law targets poor Vermonters. “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 in conclusion.
In the end, however, the court agreed with the state that notices sent to affected families were sufficient and that the legislative process provided all the process that was due. The court found no intent to discriminate against Vermonters with disabilities because the targeted reduction was for budgetary reasons and the state had a rational basis – budget savings – on which to change the law. As a result, the Judge dismissed the case.
Vermont Legal Aid had argued that because SSI recipients are excluded from the Reach Up program altogether their income should not be counted to reduce Reach Up grants. Other states that consider SSI include recipients as part of the assistance group. “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,” said Christopher Curtis, of Vermont Legal Aid who brought the case on behalf of the plaintiffs. “What we learned is that the new law is not unconstitutional; it is merely unconscionable,” he said.
Curtis said that he hoped lawmakers would consider repealing the cuts when the legislature reconvenes in January. “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,” said Curtis. “It’s an especially cruel irony that the state currently enjoys a $4 million surplus - an amount that more than covers this cut targeting the most vulnerable Vermonters,” said Curtis. He said that families suffering from the effects of the benefit cut should contact their local legislators and ask them to repeal the cut to the Reach Up program.
Cuts to the Reach Up program were originally set to go into effect in August but were delayed by agreement of the parties to allow Judge Sessions time to consider the case. “We do want to acknowledge the Secretary (Cohen) and the Commissioner (Schatz) for their agreement to continue benefits while the case was pending,” said Curtis.