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Vt. assistance programs struggle with federal cuts - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Vt. assistance programs struggle with federal cuts

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BURLINGTON, Vt. -

They're statistics we've heard year after year-- LIHEAP funding has been cut, donations to the food bank are down and more Americans and Vermonters than ever before are going hungry.

"It's really probably doubled in the last five years and as I said, the need is still going up. We still see more people coming," said John Sayles of the Vermont Foodbank.

"We're seeing less food donations from the general public, from supermarkets and other areas, at a time when we're seeing a huge decrease in support from our government," said Rob Meehan of the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf.

This also comes at a time when more Vermonters than ever before are eligible to receive services.

Reporter Susie Steimle: Has DCF really been hard on people turning people away? Saying times are tough, we do not have the money?

Richard Giddings, Vt. Department of Children and Families: We have not.

The eligibility for LIHEAP has changed dramatically in three years. In 2009, to qualify for assistance a family of four needed to have a gross income of less than $26,496. Today, that same family only needs to bring in less than $41,436.

For food stamp help the numbers are up since January. To be eligible for the food stamp program, 3SquaresVT, a family of four must gross no more than nearly $43,000 a year. That's up from the beginning of 2012 when eligibility for that same family anything was less than $41,000 a year.

The average salary in Vermont today? A little more than $40,000 a year.

Susie Steimle: Should we be expanding when times are this tough?

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont: That's precisely the time you do expand. We should be cutting back on those programs when unemployment goes down, but when you're in a time of need, that's when the government's need is to make sure people don't go hungry.

Sanders says it's equally important that programs abide by federal guidelines, something 3SquaresVT did not do this summer. After doling out too many food stamps to participants, the federal government threatened to fine the state $341,000.

"Either we were counting not enough income, we were counting too much income; but it was an error," Giddings said.

Giddings attributes the errors to an overwhelming number of program participants. Many days, the benefits center receives as many as 2,000 calls.

"I certainly think staff are working at an all time high level and trying to do as much work, but is there more work than they can manage? Yes," Giddings said.

Wednesday, the coalition of Northeast Governors, which does include Governor Shumlin, sent a letter to Washington stressing the need for maximum LIHEAP funding this winter.

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