Sue Minter

Sue Minter

The Trump administration has a uniquely cruel solution for our many neighbors who struggle with poverty: Just declare that they are not poor and strip them of essential services.

This is the likely result of a proposal now under consideration to lower the federal poverty line — the income threshold that determines what it means to be “poor” in America. The artificial maneuver to move millions of people out of poverty will terminate critical assistance for food, heat, housing and child care, to name a few, for many of our most vulnerable community members.

As executive director of Capstone Community Action, an organization that provides essential services to build ladders out of poverty, I see daily the low-income Vermonters who will be directly impacted by this change. So do you.

You may not know it, but the person serving your meal or working the checkout line at your grocery store is homeless. Or the person operating the chairlift or cutting your hair is struggling to put food on their table, and their kids depend on free healthy meals at school. When these people are not helping you, Capstone is helping them.

Consider the story of one local family. In April, we received an email requesting camping equipment. It was not for someone going on vacation, but for a family that spent much of the winter living out of a storage container or in their car.

Even though employed, the family couldn’t afford the cost of rent in their community. With warmer weather, they were relieved to be moving into a campground for the summer.

This family has two children under age 6 who attend our Head Start program — where one in four families experienced homelessness this past year. At our early learning center, kids get preschool education, two healthy meals per day, physical activity, dental checkups with the “Tooth Fairy” and critical social and emotional development, including mental health supports.

This local family, and thousands more like them, will be deeply harmed if the meager benefits they receive become even more elusive.

When the federal poverty line was established during President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in the 1960s, it was tied to “livable wage” at that time and is adjusted annually for inflation.

In 2018, the federal poverty line for a family of four was $25,100. This is supposed to account for what it costs to live. The problem is that the cost of living for essentials like food, housing, heat and child care has increased exponentially since the 1960s, but the definition of living in poverty does not take these costs into account.

This problem will be exacerbated by the proposal now under review.

Trump wants to make poor people simply vanish. The reality is that the ranks of the poor are growing: As of 2016, more than 68,000 Vermonters – that’s one in nine of our neighbors — live below the federal poverty line in extreme poverty. For children, the situation is far more dire. Statewide, one of seven children under age 5 live in extreme poverty, and in central Vermont, the region Capstone Community Action serves, it’s one in five kids who live in extreme poverty.

If this campground family, and hundreds of others across Vermont, and hundreds of thousands across the country, become ineligible for federal child care benefits, who will educate and feed them? Where will they find hope? And what does our future look like if we turn our backs on these children?

These children, and their fate, are the responsibility of us all.

Poverty is not permanent. Critical services such as early education, food, job training and housing assistance have a proven track record of success. A child in Head Start can break generational cycles of poverty.

At Capstone, and at fellow community action agencies across Vermont and the U.S., disadvantaged people are gaining self-sufficiency, courage and a path to a future beyond poverty and into prosperity.

The greatest measure of a society is the way it treats the most vulnerable. We can end poverty.

We must stop this insidious proposal by the Trump administration to “shrink” poverty and abandon those in need. We don’t end poverty by pretending it doesn’t exist. We end poverty by investing in all children and strengthening programs to help families gain economic security and mobility.

We end poverty by providing opportunity and hope.

Sue Minter of Waterbury is executive director of Capstone Community Action. She is a former state legislator, secretary of transportation and gubernatorial candidate.

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