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  For Jane Kitchel, The Past Serves As A Guide

Times Argus | November 4, 1995

By DIANE DERBY Vermont Press Bureau WATERBURYˇAsk Jane Beattie Kitchel about her days growing up on a Danville farm and she might tell you about the red flag.  The flag was flown outside the family's home as a signal to her struggling neighbors that there was food waiting for them.  

 And there were the "wards of the state," children without parents who took refuge in the Beattie home, alongside the 10 siblings (she was the second oldest).  In high school, free time was often spent picking up medicine and delivering clothes for others.  

Her parents also hired residents of the near by jail to help out at the farm, "which was not necessarily an attractive thing," she says.  

Kitchel's training to take over the role of Vermont 's social welfare commissioner started early in life.  The notion of a welfare system - in its most basic form - was learned from her parents, Catherine and Harold Beattie.  

"They were very active in the community, and they instilled in us is a sense of community responsibility for the people who may have had tough times in life," Kitchel recalls, sitting in her corner office at the state complex here.  

But all of life's lessons, combined with 28 years 01 experience within the state's social welfare system, could not prepare Kitchel for the challenges she faces as the new Republican Congress redefines welfare.  

Congressional budget cutting in combination with a looming state budget crisis; have put Kitchel in the position of having to defend plans to cut benefits to Vermont's elderly, poor and disabled.  It is a position that appears to run counter with her efforts to safeguard the safety nets.  

And as Gov. Howard B. Dean's' point person on such matters, Kitchel also finds herself caught in the storm over whether it should be the governor, or members of the Legislature, who have the power to make such cuts.

After one recent contentious session with the Administrative Rules Committee, in which she presented a plan to cut welfare benefits by 6 percent, the usually demure Kitchel appeared shaken.  

"These are tough choices.  These are tough times," she said, seemingly understating the challenge.

As Congress works through differences between the Senate and House budget bills, one thing is clear:  Vermont will be stressed to meet the demands of its residents and of its own goals under the emerging scenario.  

Medicaid, welfare and heating assistance account for more than 80 percent of the Department of Social Welfare's annual budget, which was $354 million in 1994.

But as Congress moves to cap growth based on those 1994 levels, Vermont's historic welfare reform effort, which has dominated Kitchel's three-year tenure as commissioner, is now under financial constraints that no one envisioned when it passed the Legislature two years ago.

The state's continuing effort to expand Medicaid coverage to low-income Vermonters is also threatened.  And the U.S. House has all but eliminated the low-income heating assistance program (LIHEAT) from its version of the budget.  Kitchel and others can only hope that some portion of last year's $9 million assistance level will be maintained.

What little money the feds did apply toward a cost-of-living increase for benefits for the aged, blind and disabled probably, won't be seen by recipients, as the Dean administration moves to use that money ˇ $1.8 million a year ˇ to a help' offset a $40 million state deficit.

From Kitchel's viewpoint, it is the most difficult time facing the social welfare agency in the nearly three decade's she has been involved.

"It seems like every part of the system is being redefined," she in says. "We've got 60 years of social policy being rewritten. I think this is a time of unprecedented change about the role of government, and in a very compressed time period."

She compares her role to that of Job, whose strengths and convictions are continuously tested in the Old Testament of the Bible.

"I ask myself, 'Why on my watch?'" says Kitchel.

As Vermont has concentrated its social policy efforts on child protection, Kitchel says she fears that such efforts will be undermined by the changes being handed down by Washington .  

As she sees it, child welfare is a subject that has been cast aside in ca the hurry towards "reform."

"The thing that has struck me at the national level has been, really, the absence of that dimension, that we're dealing with children here," says Kitchel, noting that the contentious welfare reform debate in he Vermont revolved around outcomes for children.

Even some of Kitchel's staunchest opponents on issues such as welfare reform credit her commitment to the job and to the nearly 50,000 families served through the department's various programs.

"I know that she feels very strongly about adequate supports to families with children," said Alan Hark, who recently resigned his post as director of the Vermont Low Income Advocacy Council.

Hark says he believes Kitchel finds it difficult to promote some of the plans that she is forced to bring to the table, such as reductions in welfare benefits.

"I think that would have to be very difficult for her. And balancing the other program needs is an act that I'm sure she loses sleep over," he says.  "In recent years, emotionally, it has been very difficult for her to reconcile some of the issues she has had to deal with with her own visions."

Hark has often been a leading critic of Kitchel's department in State House committee rooms, but in the cafeteria, Kitchel was never shy about approaching Hark's table to negotiate tough issues.

ýShe is most willing to compromise when she needs to," says Hark.  "She isn't one of those 'My way or nothing' type people."

Hark also credits Kitchel for keeping a watchful eye on "community outcomes," which he attributes to her Danville experience.

"She is a native within that native tradition," says Hark, "someone who has remained committed."

One week ago, Sen. Cheryl Rivers, D-Windsor, grilled Kitchel on the Dean administration's plan to cut the welfare benefits.  Rivers; who like Hark was once an advocate for Vermont 's low-income residents, leveled stinging charges against the administration, claiming the governor's cuts amounted to "a line-item veto" of the 1996 budget.

Kitchel took the repeated hits in her usual calm demeanor.

"I do appreciate the fact that there is a difference of opinion," she said, her style appearing in sharp contrast to Rivers' fury.

Later, Rivers said she agreed with the premise that Kitchel doesn't support making such cuts, but she questions whether Kitchel is forceful enough in protesting such actions within the administration.

That aside, Rivers ˇ long a vocal critic of the governor ˇ says her anger isn't directed at Kitchel.

"To her credit we have had a very amicable relationship and open dialogue," says Rivers.  "She doesn't take it personally when I'm making a point in disagreement.  That's an unusual ability in that respect."

Rivers says she even struggles to ensure that her comments are not taken as personal attacks, adding, "I sometimes go home and evaluate whether I was successful or not at doing it."

For her part, Kitchel says she recognizes that such attacks are not personal, and it is that realization, she says, that makes difficult times easier.

Kitchel's mother, Catherine Beattie, says it was a natural progression for her daughter to immerse herself in the field of social work.

"It's been her life.  That's what she wanted to do," says Catherine Beattie, who served a term in the Legislature in the 1960s and whose sister also found a career in the field.

"Janie has been very lucky with her work," she adds.  "It's work that she really likes."

Kitchel, whose real name is Martha but who is still called "Janie" by her mother, never strayed far from the family farm.  With the exception of a stint at a Pennsylvania college, she is a lifelong Danville resident, commuting more than an hour each way to work from the farmhouse she shares with her husband and 12-year-old son.

It is only about a mile from the family farm where Kitchel's parents still live, and where the red flag was put out for the neighbors 40 years ago.

Catherine Beattie seems to downplay the role that the family farm has played as community provider over the years. But it is a tradition of housing and feeding needy neighbors that dated back to her father's time, she explains.

ýItÝs just a place where people would come," she says of the home that has been in her family for more than 100 years.

The neighbors who came down the hill for food have since died, but they eventually left money ˇ about $100,000 from value of their property ˇ to the town's ambulance squad and to the town itself.

They always remembered their neighbors, too, according to Catherine Beattie.

ˇSource:  The Times Argus.  Wednesday, November 1, 1995 .  Vol. 100 No. 195.  Pages 1 & 8.