Let’s mend Vermont’s social safety net

By Lauren-Glenn Davitan

Vermonters have long committed to helping our vulnerable neighbors through support of our “social safety net” — a value we have held dear for generations. To this end, state government has partnered with community based non-profit agencies for decades to keep people safe, warm and fed. But the safety net is fraying dangerously, through years of state neglect.

Nearly 40 years ago, Vermont’s state government chose to serve its most vulnerable people through contracts with non-profit social service agencies supported by state revenue. Vermont’s human services organizations were chosen to do this work because they are an essential part of the structure that prepares children for school, supports elders and people with disabilities to remain safe and cared for in their homes, supports victims of domestic violence, low-income families, New Americans, and many others who require our care and compassion. And while these nonprofit agencies knit together the community, they are also a vital economic driver, employing thousands and contributing at least 15 percent to Vermont’s gross state product.

Many of the services provided by these agencies are state responsibilities mandated by federal or state laws or regulations. The social contract that relies on the contracting model made (and makes) sense for several reasons:

— Investing in community well-being today (child care, housing, social services) delivers a much needed return on investment that ultimately saves the state money in the future (prisons, mental health programs).

— State funding to these agencies is leveraged with private philanthropy so the total cost is not entirely the responsibility of government. Public private partnerships are a hallmark of mission-driven organizations. In fact, individual donations are by far the largest revenue source for Vermont’s non-profits.

— Non-profit social service agencies are held accountable for their efficiency, transparency, results, direct relationships with the community, and lower price tag for the taxpayers.

However, in the last 15 years, as state revenue has come under pressure, Vermont’s Legislature has reneged on its end of social service contracts, shifting responsibility for funding these cost-effective services back to non-profits.

The gap between cost and state funding grows each year, while nonprofit agencies scramble to fullfill the contract obligation. They spend critical resources soliciting even more funding from private individuals and foundations, balancing the budgets on the backs of their workers. These workarounds often fail to make up the funding gap — compromising service to those in need.

Now is the time to renegotiate Vermont’s social contract. Vermont’s non-profit leaders call upon Gov. Shumlin and the Vermont Legislature to renew their commitment to our most vulnerable neighbors, agree on social service core services required for the well-being of our people, and fully fund these priorities. Our sector is committed to accountability, has the experience to serve our communities well and prevent crises for the people we serve. Vermont’s state budget should reflect the need we have, the mandates we must fulfill, and the commitments we have made to each other.

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Lauren-Glenn Davitan is director of Common Good Vermont — a statewide network of Vermont’s mission-driven organizations. Renegotiating of the Vermont’s social contract is the theme of Vermont Nonprofit Legislative Day at the Vermont Statehouse on Thursday Feb. 5, 2015.