Anti-poverty advocates call for a “New Moral Agenda” for Pennsylvania

    Members of the Poor People's Campaign called on lawmakers to increase the state's General Assistance benefit at a rally in the state Capitol. (Capital-Star photo by Elizabeth Hardison)

    In a single sentence, Xavier Thomas, a youth climate activist from Philadelphia, summarized the philosophy of anti-poverty advocates who rallied at Pennsylvania’s state Capitol today.

    “We shouldn’t be living in poverty in one of the richest countries in the world.”

    Thomas appeared alongside dozens of other activists in the Capitol rotunda, where they called for a broad suite of reforms including universal voting rights, single-payer healthcare system, equitable education, and immigration reform, and other proposals.

    The activists, who organized under the banner of the Poor People’s Campaign, outline these demands in a policy doctrine called the New Moral Agenda for Pennsylvania. 

    Their campaign is part of a national movement led by the Rev. William Barber and the Rev. Liz Theoharis. It takes its name from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign.

    The Poor People’s Campaign comprises more than 60 organizations fighting for civil rights and economic justice in Pennsylvania. Some of them appeared at Tuesday’s rally, where they made specific demands for lawmakers to act on current policy proposals before the General Assembly.

    Pat Albright, an advocate for working mothers, called on lawmakers to increase the state’s General Assistance benefit, which provides cash assistance to people who are ineligible for welfare programs like TANF, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

    General Assistance recipients get about $200 a month from the program, which had more than 6,600 enrollees as of January 2018, according to WHYY-FM in Philadelphia.

    Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed converting general assistance funds into a program for affordable housing. A bill in the House would eliminate the program on July 1, the date the 2019-2020 budget goes into effect.

    Albright, who has a disability, said that the general assistance benefit was “vital to [her] survival” after she was laid off from a job and had to wait for disability payments.

    The Poor People’s Campaign also calls for a universal healthcare program. Tammy Rojas, Co-Coordinator of the Lancaster Healthcare Rights Committee, said that Medicaid and Medicare recipients have been harmed by recent healthcare mergers and closings.

    She said that the closure of UPMC Pinnacle Hospital in Lancaster has left that city with only one hospital, leading to emergency room overcrowding and overworked healthcare professionals.

    Rojas called on the state to appoint a Healthcare Advocate to help medicaid and medicare recipients navigate the healthcare and insurance systems and advocate for their healthcare rights.

    The proposal resembles the state’s Office of the Victims Advocate, which advocates on behalf of crime victims throughout Pennsylvania.

    “Pennsylvania is in the middle of a healthcare crisis,” Rojas said. “I don’t say this lightly, and we need to turn things around now before further harm is done.”

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