The Legislature’s failure to pass a minimum wage hike, while eliminating General Assistance, was a gut punch to Philadelphia | Opinion

The Philadelphia Skyline from the 'Rocky Steps' at the Philly Art Museum. Photo by Steve Lange, courtesy of Flickr Commons.

By Andrea Custis

As has been well documented over the last several years, Philadelphia is America’s poorest large city. Nearly 26 percent of the city’s residents live below the poverty limit, with a significant portion living in deep poverty.

On top of that, Philadelphia was the only city of the top ten largest to see median household income drop in 2016 — falling 4 percent and dipping under $40,000 per year.

As if that wasn’t enough, Pennsylvania has neglected to raise its minimum wage since 2009. It currently sits at the federal minimum of $7.25, lower than all neighboring states.

Recently, the Pennsylvania General Assembly voted to eliminate the General Assistance program, an initiative that has been vital to Pennsylvania’s poorest citizens for decades.

General Assistance has helped more than 10,000 citizens by providing them $200 per month while they were temporarily or permanently unable to work.

Many Pennsylvanians fall under this category, including people with disabilities, caring for loved ones, receiving substance abuse treatment, displaced by domestic abuse, and more.

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For some, $200 doesn’t seem particularly significant, but it is truly a lifeline for those who cannot earn a steady income. General Assistance recipients use their $200 for gas, groceries, household items, and more — expenses you and I often just take for granted.

Pennsylvania is facing a minimum wage crisis. The current wage is insufficient for many workers to cover the cost of living and raising a family.

An adult working a full 40-hour workweek at minimum wage earns barely more than $15,000 per year before taxes, an income level that sits below the federal poverty level. Statewide, workers need to earn more than $19 an hour in order to afford a two-bedroom rental property.

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In Philadelphia, that number jumps to more than $23 an hour. Though unemployment has been dropping and jobs are available, many of these jobs offer low wages and do not give workers much opportunity to break the cycle of poverty.

At the Urban League of Philadelphia, we have spent more than 100 years working to empower the local African-American community with the skills and knowledge to succeed in business, buy a home, find a job, and more.

In a majority-minority city, where nearly 45 percent of the residents are black, this is exceedingly important. Many of these neighborhoods have struggled for years, stuck in the vicious cycle of poverty.

We believe in the power of people helping others, especially when one is down on his or her luck and just needs a small hand up. This is what General Assistance provides to Philadelphians — a way to just get by until an opportunity for success presents itself.

Eliminating the General Assistance program is simply the wrong decision. It is one of the most vital human services programs we have in our state today, while also amounting to a relatively small portion of the state budget.

In some circumstances, General Assistance keeps people alive and out of shelters and hospitals. The majority of us might never experience homelessness and hunger because of an abusive relationship or know what it’s like to be addicted to drugs or alcohol.

We might not ever know what it’s like to be unable to afford food on the table every night or bus fare to get to an appointment.

But, it could happen to anyone, at anytime, in any place.

Without the General Assistance program, our city’s minimum wage crisis will only continue to get worse. We will not see citizens being lifted out of the depths of poverty; rather, we might see more Philadelphians who have to work two or three jobs to put food on the table and a roof over their family’s heads.

We cannot sit back and watch as lawmakers take money out of the pockets of hard-working Pennsylvanians. We cannot remain idle as the wage crisis threatens to worsen. General Assistance has been eliminated and reinstated before — it’s time to make it happen again.

Andrea Custis is the CEO of the Urban League of Philadelphia.

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