House committee votes to eliminate cash assistance for disabled adults, people with addiction

    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 on Tuesday.

    A state House committee voted along party lines Monday to eliminate a cash assistance program for childless adults with disabilities, domestic violence survivors, and people in treatment for addiction.

    General Assistance was first eliminated by the General Assembly in 2012, during the Corbett administration. That law was struck down last year by the state Supreme Court due to how it was passed.

    Advocates for poor Pennsylvanians cheered the reinstatement of the program. But their joy may be short lived.

    A bill introduced by Rep. George Dunbar, R-Westmoreland, would end the cash assistance program effective July 1, 2019.

    The Wolf administration budgeted $50 million for the program in new fiscal year that begins on that day. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, told Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller at a February budget hearing that Republicans aren’t interested in funding the program.

    Democrats on the House Health Committee offered eight amendments to Dunbar’s bill, including one that would allow people in treatment for substance abuse to continue receiving monthly cash assistance. Most people receive $207 a month.

    That amendment was offered by Rep. Sara Innamorato, D-Allegheny, whose father died after struggling with addiction.

    “I wish I could share my father’s recovery story with you, but I can’t,” she told the committee. “We need to recognize the hypocrisy of taking assistance from people when they are on the pathway to recovery and a new life.”

    All eight amendments failed with Republicans voting no and Democrats voting yes.

    Anticipating pushback, Gov. Tom Wolf earlier this year proposed using the General Assistance appropriation for housing.

    Patrick Keenan, director of consumer protections and policy for the Pennsylvania Health Access Network, previously told the Capital-Star that’s a worthy goal, but not what General Assistance funds should be used for.

    “People need access to cash,” he said.

    In a statement Monday, Wolf spokesperson J.J. Abbott said the governor “opposes the outright repeal of general assistance with no plan to transition these individuals to other assistance.”

    “It is inhumane and inappropriate governing,” Abbott said. “The few thousand people receiving this assistance are some of the most poor and struggling in our state. There is absolutely no reason to rush the repeal of this program. Governor Wolf has provided Republicans with an alternative to this repeal and we expect the legislature to approach any change with empathy and compassion for recipients.”

    Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes covers the governor and Pennsylvania's agencies. Before joining the Capital-Star, she was the state capitol reporter for Billy Penn and The Incline, and a 2018 corps member for Report for America. She was previously managing editor of Washington City Paper, editor-in-chief of DCist, and a national blogger for The Washington Post.

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