Attorney calls new law unconstitutional, discriminatory
BURLINGTON – Low-income Vermonters with disabilities are fighting back against state mandated reductions to their household Reach Up benefits. Vermont Legal Aid filed a class action lawsuit in federal court today on behalf of affected Vermonters alleging that a new law is unconstitutional and discriminates against households with family members with a disabling condition.
The new law counts $125 of adult Supplemental Security Income (SSI) income against a household’s temporary cash assistance (or “Reach Up”) benefits. The plaintiffs are asking the court for an injunction to stop the cuts from taking effect, and to declare the reductions unconstitutional, discriminatory and illegal.
“I feel like I’m being punished for having a disability,” said Robin Wheeler of Williamstown, one of the named plaintiffs in the suit. Ms. Wheeler suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, agoraphobia, anxiety and depression. She said she has to meet the needs of herself and her 15-year old daughter and cannot afford any reduction in benefits.
“The State of Vermont is picking the pockets of the poor and disabled to solve its budget problems,” said Legal Aid attorney Christopher Curtis, who brought the suit on behalf of the plaintiffs. “It’s unconscionable, it’s unfair, and it’s unlawful,” said Curtis.
Curtis said the benefit cuts are unnecessary pointing to recent news of a $21 million budget surplus. “Instead, the state has elected to levy a ‘poor tax’ on people with disabilities,” he said. “We cannot afford to have low-income families and children sacrificed on the altar of austerity,” said Curtis.
Notices were recently mailed to approximately 860 Vermont households advising them that their benefits would be reduced starting on August 1st. Many households were taken by surprise.
“I had no idea this was coming, and I think it is totally wrong,” said another plaintiff, Tina Bidwell of Johnson. Ms. Bidwell is blind and cares for her grandson. “I barely get by with my disability and I can’t afford the state taking away our benefits,” she said. Because she is blind, Ms. Bidwell has to pay for transportation to the grocery store, her doctor’s office, and other appointments.
Curtis pointed out that the state has told beneficiaries in its notice that the cuts will become effective immediately even if they appeal the decision reducing benefits starting August 1st. “Only the court has the power to stop these catastrophic reductions from taking place,” said Curtis. “So, we are asking for immediate relief to stop families from being harmed while the case is pending.”
The change in state statute relates to how benefits are computed. Currently, SSI beneficiaries are not considered part of a Reach Up assistance unit and their disability benefits are not counted in determining Reach Up grants. The new law set to go into effect August 1st seeks to count $125 of any adult SSI benefit received by a family member against the remaining family Reach Up grants resulting in a dollar-for-dollar reduction. The new law was part of a $1.6 million cut in the FY 2016 budget that passed over the objections of Vermont Legal Aid and other advocates.
The lawsuit alleges that the new policy deprives affected Vermonters of due process and equal protection because there is insufficient opportunity for pre- or post-termination relief and because it treats similarly situated families differently. It also alleges violations of federal and state law for treating certain households differently on the basis of disability status and for counting adult SSI income against the Reach Up grants, which Legal Aid contends violates Social Security law.
“It’s not enough that these families are already among the very poorest in Vermont. Now the state is singling out certain families with special needs resulting from disability for unequal treatment and benefit reductions,” said Curtis. “We will fight on behalf of low-income Vermont families with disabilities to stop these cuts from taking effect.”
Federal courts in Washington and West Virginia have issued injunctions in the past to stop similar cuts for children with SSI income whose households also receive temporary assistance for needy families (TANF) grants. Reach Up is Vermont’s TANF program. The proposed reductions in Vermont count adult SSI income, but do not count a child’s SSI income against a Reach Up grant.