Pa.’s cash assistance program’s former beneficiaries say they’ve been forgotten by Harrisburg

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)

The fight to protect a cash assistance program for impoverished adults spurred a spate of fervent activism across Pennsylvania last June, including a shouting match on the state Senate floor and a protest outside Gov. Tom Wolf’s private home in York.

Almost six months after it blinked out of existence, the activists who fought to preserve the General Assistance program say powerful lawmakers in Harrisburg have all but forgotten their appeals. 

“Today was frustrating,” activist Pat Albright said Wednesday, after watching state Human Services officials defend their proposed $14 billion budget before members of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The budget hearings held throughout the month of February offer state officials the chance to outline their spending priorities for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins every July 1. 

Human Services secretary Teresa D. Miller oversees a department that offers medical, housing and food assistance to Pennsylvania’s neediest citizens.

But in an hours-long hearing Wednesday, Albright said, Miller didn’t once mention General Assistance, which until August, provided $200 a month to adults who were disabled, fighting addiction, or fleeing abusive relationships. Nor did Miller field any questions about it from the bipartisan group of lawmakers who sit on the committee.

The omission disappointed Albright, who said the repeal of General Assistance “is such a glaring issue to us and has such consequences that it seemed like somebody would have raised it.”

The bill eliminating General Assistance passed through the House and Senate on near-party-line votes last June. Wolf signed the bill, which also delivered millions of dollars to a Philadelphia hospital, and the program ended on August 1.

Almost all the Democrats in the Senate and more than half their counterparts in the House signed a letter asking Wolf to declare a state of emergency as they sought a way to restore aid to the 11,000 people were enrolled in the program.

Albright said General Assistance payments “helped [her] survive” before she was deemed eligible for disability benefits.

She said the program offered a similar lifeline for others, including adults trying to avoid homelessness.

The General Assistance repeal “leaves people in much more desperate situations, and places that provide them services are stretched thin,” said Albright, who now works with the Crossroads Women’s Center in Philadelphia, which helps low-income women find housing, legal services and healthcare.

Albright attended Wednesday’s hearing with other members of the Pennsylvania Poor People’s Campaign, a chapter of the national anti-poverty organization led by faith leaders. 

There, they watched Republican lawmakers who control the committee express their exasperation with the Wolf administration’s resistance to their proposed changes to welfare programs.

The governor has twice vetoed Republican-authored bills requiring Medicaid recipients to maintain jobs or steady volunteer gigs in order to receive benefits, Sen. David Argall, R-Berks, pointed out Wednesday. 

The activists voiced their frustration with those proposals Wednesday, saying they rely on negative misconceptions about Medicaid recipients, and called on lawmakers to include more poor people in the legislative process. 

“I feel like I have a bullseye on my back,” said activist Teresa Muldrow, a Medicaid recipient.

Tammy Rojas, a healthcare activist from Lancaster County, chafed at the argument, held up by Republican lawmakers who sought to cut the program, that General Assistance was rife with fraud and abuse. 

Rojas said that poor people face more scrutiny than corporations, whose malfeasance and abuse of state programs can go unpunished.

The activists say they will spend the coming days visiting lawmakers’ offices in the state Capitol to promote their anti-poverty agenda. 

They’re hoping to see traction on legislation in the House and Senate that would replicate General Assistance in a new, rebranded program. Both bills are currently awaiting votes in committees.