One of the most important lessons I’ve gained in life is that when you have a problem, you figure out what’s causing it and get down to the root of the matter. Gov. Shumlin’s proposals to cap Reach Up and limit the Earned Income Tax Credit are a clear example of misunderstanding the problem, and therefore calling for a solution that won’t fix it.
The things I hear coming from Montpelier and some newspapers these days don’t ring true with what I’ve faced. I’m a single mom of two children, born and raised in Brattleboro. I’m also proud to have attended college and received two degrees. I work full time and volunteer in my community that I have invested in and value so much. Yet I and many members of my community struggle to meet our needs such as health care, higher education, child care, transportation, housing, healthy food, and jobs that pay livable wages.
Here’s my story: Today I have $58,342.61 in student loan debt. At least $9 of interest gets added daily. When I pay my monthly bill of $389.10, only $92.02 goes to the principal and $297.08 toward interest. Each time I pay that bill, I think about my 18-year-old daughter who will attend college next year and face her own student debt.
Our budget process starts by looking at what money happens to be available, not what needs people have. We need a People’s Budget. This means first looking at the human needs in Vermont, then raising the money in an equitable way so that we all give what we can and get what we need.
For the last 18 years, I raised my children for under $23,000 a year. I’ve shuttled between many different social services, including Reach Up, to sustain my family. I’ve worked up to three jobs at once, yet still continued to live in poverty. I worked multiple nonprofit and service jobs: program coordinator, case manager, personal care provider, and elected town school board director.
Even between a day job, afternoon job and a night job, I never made more than $17,000 annually. My current job is my first with benefits.
Meanwhile in Montpelier, the story goes that we have a budget deficit and our only option is for “everyone” to tighten their belts and take more cuts. I’m asking people across Vermont to compare this story with our reality. We are not in a budget crisis, we are in a revenue crisis. We don’t live in a system that makes sure everyone contributes equitably. There are many extremely wealthy people and businesses in Vermont benefiting from the current tax system because they are not asked to pay their fair share. Poor and low-income people pay a greater proportion of their income to taxes. Yet each year, they are expected to bear the brunt of cuts to public services. This is all in the context of a poverty economy that just does not create enough dignified jobs with livable wages.
The governor’s proposal to cap Reach Up and slash the EITC is an attack on all our state’s residents who struggle to meet their fundamental needs in a system that makes people poor and keeps them poor. The heart of Vermont’s problem is a system that puts corporate profits before people and families. Our budget process starts by looking at what money happens to be available, not what needs people have. We need a People’s Budget. This means first looking at the human needs in Vermont, then raising the money in an equitable way so that we all give what we can and get what we need.
Our budget reflects our values. It ought to reflect our desire to create the kind of caring communities where we would never leave anyone behind.
It’s also important that our public dialogue reflects the highest values our community aspires to have. Because Reach Up and the EITC mostly support women, these cuts are an attack on women and families. It is shocking and heartbreaking how quickly this debate has encouraged stereotypes and resentment to come out of the woodwork in our communities, criticizing poor mothers and families who are trying to get by.
We must remember that raising a child can be very hard, but it is also very important – particularly in the face of all the injustice in the world. We must hold in our hearts that all children are blessings, and that all families need support at different times. Most of all, we must remember that we all have human rights, and that the responsibility of our government is to fulfill the right of all people to live with dignity and meet their full potential.
Today’s state budget and revenue process tries to pit us against one another in competition over a slice of the state budget. But our communities can do better than that. We have the power to recognize that there is enough to go around, if we create a Vermont in which the people – our fundamental needs and our human rights – are the top priority.
Shela Linton of Brattleboro is the southern Vermont community organizer for the Vermont Worker's Center's Put People First campaign.
This op-ed was also published in the VT Digger.