By Elizabeth Hewitt, VTDigger
At a panel discussion Thursday, April 6, Vermont officials discussed how different economic approaches could help address poverty in the state.
The panel, hosted by Capstone Community Action and the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, featured Treasurer Beth Pearce and Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman alongside Bob Friedman, of the Corporation for Enterprise Development.
Friedman founded the national nonprofit, which focuses on generating economic opportunity for low-income individuals. Factors very early in individuals’ lives and often out of their control have a powerful bearing over outcomes later on.
“I think we don’t understand how much we owe to how we’re born and where we’re born,” Friedman said.
With information about the assets and location of a family when a child is born, Friedman can predict “with painful accuracy” the education, employment, housing and more the child will have later in life.
The primary approach to addressing poverty in the 20th century was building a safety net of programs that help people access basic needs, he said.
“But it doesn’t offer a way out,” Friedman added.
Because of caps on the income benefits recipients can earn, it can be very difficult for people to earn more money and move off of those programs, he said.
“I think what we need to be about is building the ladder,” Friedman said. “We need to make sure that everybody has a chance.”
Instead of keeping people simply sustained, officials hope to create programs that will help people move out of poverty.
People with low incomes, even those considerably below the poverty line, can save money and launch successful businesses, he said.
“We forget the dreams and the energy that we write off if we don’t invest in a fundamental way,” Friedman said.
On a scorecard by CFED that tracks how well states are doing on more than 60 different economic indicators in a variety of areas including financial assets, housing, healthcare and education, Vermont ranked first in the nation.
The organization ranked Vermont 11th in the nation for implementing policies it deems important.
Friedman argues the costs associated with low-income economic immobility are born by the state.
“You can either exclude people and try to pay for the damage of that, or you can include everybody in an opportunity economy, give them a chance to play,” Friedman said.
Pearce said she is interested in working more with vulnerable populations in Vermont.
“Every single Vermonter should be entitled to a lifetime of financial wellbeing,” Pearce said.
Her office has already taken on several initiatives to try to encourage greater financial opportunity for vulnerable populations, she said.
Earlier this year, Pearce unveiled a program that allows Vermonters with disabilities to set up investment accounts without losing state and federal benefits.
Pearce also raised the proposal to establish a public retirement plan.
When people have sufficient savings to support them in retirement, they contribute to the overall economy, she said. Without it, those individuals “will be a drag on the economy instead of an engine,” she said.
Zuckerman said that there have been efforts in Vermont to focus on access to food, housing healthcare and other fundamental services.
“If the ground is solid under someone’s feet then they have the opportunity to stand up and reach up without falling with the ground shaking underneath them,” he said.
He encouraged support for establishing paid family and medical leave.
A bill to create a state-administered program was introduced this year with tri-partisan support, but has since stalled in the House.
Zuckerman argued that though the costs associated with such a proposal may seem considerable, the benefits balance the price tag.