Advocates for poor Pennsylvanians sue over elimination of cash assistance program

By: - July 22, 2019 4:16 pm

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)

Two nonprofits that serve poor Pennsylvanians and people with disabilities have filed a class-action lawsuit against the Wolf administration over the elimination of a cash assistance program that currently serves nearly 12,000 people.

The Republican-controlled General Assembly voted to eliminate the General Assistance program in June as part of the most recent budget. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, signed the bill, which also provided funding for Philadelphia hospitals.

That bundling of issues is at the heart of the lawsuit, filed Monday in Commonwealth Court by Community Legal Services (CLS) in Philadelphia and Disability Rights Pennsylvania.

“By ‘logrolling’ the hospital assessments and nursing home payments into the final bill, the bill’s proponents forced lawmakers and Governor Wolf to choose between generating essential revenue for the state and providing life-sustaining support for Pennsylvanians in need,” a press release from CLS states. “In doing so, the General Assembly violated core principles of fair governance.”

Will cash assistance for disabled adults be a budget casualty?

The Pennsylvania Constitution includes language referred to as a single-subject rule, which states: “No bill shall be passed containing more than one subject, which shall be clearly expressed in its title, except a general appropriation bill or a bill codifying or compiling the law or a part thereof.”

CLS sued the commonwealth in 2012 after General Assistance was first eliminated by the Corbett administration. The state Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that the elimination bill 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.

Community Legal Services and Disability Rights Pennsylvania are seeking preliminary injunction to prevent the program from ending on Aug. 1, as currently scheduled.

General Assistance provides roughly $200 a month, primarily, to people with temporary and permanent disabilities. The money is also available to people fleeing domestic violence, those in treatment for substance use disorder, and to children who are being cared for by an unrelated adult.

Recipients and advocates for the poor say these funds are used to buy toiletries, clothing, or space on a friend’s couch.

Four General Assistance recipients are named in the class-action suit. One, a 27-year-old woman named Jasmine, said in sworn declaration she’s been living in a homeless shelter while trying to regain custody of her two children.

Jasmine said she uses “General Assistance to pay for transportation to doctor appointments, therapy appointments, court dates, and visits with my children.” She also uses the money to buy meals for her children, and to pay for toiletries like soap.

“I cannot afford to live without General Assistance and losing General Assistance will make it almost impossible for me to be reunified with my children,” Jasmine said.

(While Jasmine is referred to by her full name in court documents, the Capital-Star does not identify victims of domestic violence without their express consent.)

“We are reviewing the filing but generally cannot comment on pending litigation,” a Department of Human Services spokesperson said by email.

Requests for comment from the Wolf administration and from Republican leaders in the Legislature were not immediately returned.

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Sarah Anne Hughes
Sarah Anne Hughes

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.