Sandra Paritz: Raise Revenue to Protect Vulnerable Citizens
This commentary is by Sandra Paritz, director of the Poverty Law Project of Vermont Legal Aid. It appeared in VTDigger on May 22, 2023.
When asked about the Vermont Legislature’s failure to fund the General Assistance emergency housing program currently housing thousands of Vermonters, Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, responded: “How much would you like your taxes to go up?”
Here is the answer: As much as it takes to prevent those thousands of vulnerable people — many elderly, with disabilities, or children — from being put out on the street come the end of May and June. That is the current plan of both the governor and Legislature.
It is true that someone like me — a homeowner with a car, and enough money to pay my bills — may be less comfortable if my taxes go up. But if the choice is between my discomfort and thousands of Vermonters living on the street, the right choice — the only moral choice — could not be clearer.
In 1988, George H.W. Bush famously pledged, “Read my lips: no new taxes.” Since that time, the drumbeat of “no new taxes” has been repeated so many times that we accept it as a given. But why should there be no new taxes?
The truth is that, just as with personal finance, if your expenses increase, so must your income. The Department for Children and Families testified in May that the number of people experiencing homelessness has more than doubled since 2012. VTDigger reported in February that “Vermont has the second-highest per-capita rate of homelessness in the country,” and that “the federal government estimates that 43.1 out of every 10,000 Vermonters are unhoused.” It simply costs more to shelter more people.
And that cost will be paid — either by properly funding the needed emergency housing, or by the cost to society.
Anne Sosin, policy fellow of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences at Dartmouth, and interim executive director the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition, recently testified that “eliminating the GA Emergency Housing program will not eliminate the costs of homelessness but will instead shift these costs to other overburdened systems, including emergency departments, local municipalities, service providers, the criminal justice system, and schools.”
But the biggest cost will be the most incalculable and unacceptable one: the certain deaths of our fellow Vermonters if forced into the streets and the woods.
Vermont’s housing vacancy rate is currently at 1%, and as of April 25, there were 89 affordable housing units available in the entire state. There is no place to go for the thousands who will be exiting the motel program or the more than a thousand more who will soon lose housing due to the end of Vermont’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program in June.
Article 7 of the Vermont Constitution states “[t]hat government is or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people…” There is nothing more essential to the protection and security of the people than to provide housing for those who are experiencing homelessness. Housing is a nonnegotiable necessity for everyone. Vermont’s state budget is in the billions and pays for important things such as roads, bridges, and expansion of broadband. But what could be more important than housing?
And while I am more than willing to pay higher taxes, the Legislature should also ensure that the wealthiest Vermonters pay their share. In the 1950s, the highest tax rate on the richest Americans was over 40 percent. Today, after Trump’s tax cuts, the richest Americans pay less than 26 percent.
Simply righting this wrong would go a long way toward raising the revenue we need to protect our most vulnerable citizens.