Will cash assistance for disabled adults be a budget casualty?

Pat Albright repurposes a sign to protest the elimination of General Assistance. (Photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)
Pat Albright repurposes a sign to protest the elimination of General Assistance. (Photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

Tina Smith was just 27 when she took custody of three children who aren’t related to her.

Smith’s mother, Ruth, started caring for two sisters and their brother in the 1990s after they were abandoned. The youngest of the siblings was just six months old at the time.

But just a few years later, Ruth died of cancer. The children were facing the prospect of going into state custody.

“I couldn’t see that happen,” Tina Smith told the Capital-Star. “I went and got custody of them.”

Smith was once part of a small group of people eligible to receive a cash stipend from the state to care for an unrelated child.

More commonly, that cash assistance program, General Assistance, serves adults with disabilities, as well as people in treatment for addiction and those fleeing domestic violence.

It’s not much money — roughly $200 a month — but recipients and advocates say it provides a crucial chunk of cash for toiletries, school clothes, rent payments, and more.

By 2012, Smith was still caring for the youngest child, a girl who at the time was 13 years old, and receiving $205 a month.

The payment ended abruptly that summer, when the program was eliminated by Gov. Tom Corbett and the Republican-led Legislature.

Smith was one of three General Assistance recipients who signed on to a lawsuit spearheaded by Community Legal Services of Philadelphia to challenge the elimination.

It took six years, but in 2018 the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of Smith and her co-plaintiffs. Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration reinstated the program, which is currently serving more than 11,000 people.

But in Harrisburg, everything old can be new again. As budget season winds down, that includes eliminating General Assistance for a second time.

A rally to fund General Assistance in the Capitol rotunda. (Photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

‘They needed help’

Rep. Stan Saylor, a York County Republican, is the chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, which controls state spending. He’s also not a fan of General Assistance.

At a March budget hearing, he told the secretary of the Human Services department the House wasn’t “interested” in funding the program. In early June, he hadn’t changed his mind.

“We’re planning to eliminate cash grants,” Saylor told the Capital-Star.

Saylor was one of 106 lawmakers — all Republicans save for one Democrat — who voted Wednesday for a House bill that eliminates the program. Many expressed concerns about a lack of accountability for the cash stipend.

“Today’s debate is about priorities,” Saylor said on the House floor. “Since 2012, this General Assembly has made great strides in increasing services for everyone in this commonwealth.”

Even before the program was reinstated, Saylor sent a memo to his colleagues questioning how Wolf “intends to pay for this program,” PennLive reported.

Wolf, anticipating another push to eliminate it, suggested in January reallocating $50 million to housing supports.

The compromise didn’t sit well with advocates for the poor, who argued people in dire straits need access to some cash to get by.

While it only provides a small amount of assistance, the GA benefit often makes the difference between homelessness and being able to rent a room,” a March letter to lawmakers signed by dozens of organizations and service providers reads. “Our clients also use GA for Medicaid prescription copayments, deodorant, toilet paper, trips to the laundromat, or winter coats.”

The campaign to save General Assistance from elimination is not unlike the one launched in 2012, with rallies in the Capitol rotunda and visits to key lawmakers.

Opal Gibson, a former General Assistance recipient, made the trip from Philadelphia to Harrisburg then. She also signed on to Community Legal Services’ lawsuit.

“I felt very passionate about it,” she said by phone Tuesday. “Not only was I affected, but quite a few people who were struggling and in situations where they needed help.”

At the time of its elimination, General Assistance was serving more than 68,000 people — the vast majority of whom had at least one temporary or permanent disability.

In 2012, Gibson was dealing with several health conditions, including severe depression. Two of her children had died, and she had been laid off from her job as a phlebotomist. She applied for General Assistance to help pay the rent while she waited for Social Security disability benefits.

Supporters of the program note that, if a recipient is eventually approved for those benefits, the federal government will reimburse the state. There’s also a nine-month lifetime limit on General Assistance.

On average, it takes two years for a Social Security disability application in Pennsylvania to be approved, Patrick Keenan of the Pennsylvania Health Access Network, said in March.

In many cases, people must apply several times and request a hearing if they’re rejected. It takes 10 months on average to get a hearing at one Philadelphia office, according to the Social Security Administration. The wait is a year in Johnstown and Harrisburg, and 13 months in Wilkes-Barre.

When Gibson’s cash assistance was cut off after two months — with no notification, she says — she felt like the rug was pulled out from under her.

Both Gibson and Smith reached out to Community Legal Services after they lost General Assistance, which is how they joined the lawsuit.

But a resolution in the case didn’t come in time to help them. In the intervening years, both women were able to survive with the help of family and friends.

Smith applied for cash assistance through a federal program for families, but was rejected since she hadn’t adopted any of the children. She sold some of her jewelry and accepted charity from a friend to get by, she said Tuesday.

Gibson was able to keep her apartment, although she did fall behind on the rent. She was able to find work again, taking care of the father of a friend from church, but injured herself in 2017. She now receives federal disability benefits.

No one can say for sure what happened to the thousands of other people who lost their benefits.

That lack of information had led several Republicans to conclude that the program isn’t needed.

On the House floor Wednesday, Saylor questioned why — if “devastation with rain over our commonwealth” if the program is eliminated — no Democrats had introduced legislation to bring it back between 2012 and the present.

But Carol Thomas, director of homeless services for the Philadelphia-based Project Home, says she’s seen the painful results of ending General Assistance.

Over the past several years, the number of unsheltered adults in the city has steadily ticked up. A point-in-time count showed 659 homeless adults without kids on the streets of Philadelphia in 2015. That number was 967 in 2019.

“More people were on the streets in Kensington, as well as some of the outlying neighborhoods,” Thomas said.

The monthly $205 benefit allowed people to “take care of their basic needs,” like rent space in a rooming house. “They would use that General Assistance to help ensure that they had a place to stay,” she said.

Housing insecurity also goes hand-in-hand with the opioid crisis.

“Some people may not be able to make the correlation,” she said. “When you work in homeless services, you can.”

Ultimately, it’s wasn’t the program’s merits, but how it was eliminated, that led the state Supreme Court to rule in Community Legal Services’ favor. The justices determined that the rushed legislation was not considered on the proper number of days.

The court also rejected that the bill — which reauthorized a nursing home assessment that netted the state millions of dollars and made a number of other human services changes — had a “unifying subject,” as required by the Constitution.

Gibson said she was “happy and surprised” when they finally won.

“When they told me we won, I was like, ‘Wow,'” Gibson said. “It had been so long.”

Activists camp outside of Gov. Tom Wolf’s house to protest the end of General Assistance. (Photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

What happens next?

Just how another elimination of General Assistance may play out this month is unclear.

The bill passed Wednesday doesn’t just eliminate the program. It was amended by Republicans Tuesday to reauthorize a hospital assessment that nets Philadelphia more than $100 million in revenue a year.

“Which ironically is exactly why this was blown up the first time,” Rep. Matt Bradford, the Democratic chair of the Appropriations Committee, said Wednesday.

Bradford said on the House floor the legislation as amended would violate the single-subject rule. After the vote, he declined to speculate on what will happen next.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” he said.

Sen. Pat Browne, the Republican chair of the Appropriations Committee, told WITF he expects the legislation will end up in court. “But this time we will win,” he said to the radio station.

The confusion and uncertainty around the program’s future led a group of activists, under the umbrella of the Pennsylvania Poor People’s Campaign, to camp outside Wolf’s private home in York County last Friday.

For the occasion, activist Pat Albright repurposed a sign she made in 2012 — with one edit. Where it once demanded, “Gov. Corbett: No General Assistance cuts either!” it now made the same ask of Wolf.

“The feeling you get is that our lives are expendable,” said Albright, who received General Assistance in the 1980s while she waited for federal disability benefits.

The group was seeking a firm commitment from Wolf that he would veto any budget that eliminated the program. Members previously met with Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and his staff, but weren’t satisfied with the answers they received.

Wolf did meet with protesters later in the day. According to Pennsylvania Poor People’s Campaign, Rabbi Michael Pollack asked Wolf, “We’re looking for the commitment that when [House Speaker Mike] Turzai comes to you and says, ‘General Assistance is not going to be in the code,’ that you’re going to say, ‘Take it back and work on it again.’ We need that commitment.”

Wolf, according to the group, replied, “You have it.”

Speaking to reporters last week, Wolf said it is his “preference” to keep General Assistance.

“I’m dealing with the real world, and I’m trying to do what I can to keep it or as much of it as we can,” he said. “That’s still something that’s under conversation.”

A week later, he called the Republicans’ amendment a “smart tactic.”

“We’re between a rock and a hard place here,” Wolf said on a live WITF call-in show, noting that Republican leaders are dead set on eliminating the program. “What do we do?”

The thousands of people who are on General Assistance won’t have to wait much longer to find out what their future holds. Wolf and the Legislature are on track to seal a budget deal by or before the June 30 deadline.

When asked how she feels about lawmakers trying to eliminate General Assistance once again, Gibson let out a long sigh.

“It makes me feel — why are they doing this?” she said. “Why do they want to hurt people who need this boost in life?”

Capital-Star reporter Stephen Caruso contributed reporting to this story. 

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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