The Capitol building in Harrisburg (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)
Before members of the House Appropriations Committee could ask questions of the state’s Human Services secretary Thursday, Rep. Stan Saylor wanted to get something off his chest.
About that recently revived cash assistance program? The House isn’t “interested” in funding it, the York Republican told Secretary Teresa Miller.
Saylor was referencing the General Assistance program, which provides a small amount of cash monthly to childless adults with disabilities, domestic violence survivors, and people in treatment for addiction. Most people in the program receive $205 a month, according to the Department of Human Services, an amount that hasn’t changed since 1990.
The program is back after years in legal limbo, but its future is uncertain.
In 2012, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and the General Assembly eliminated General Assistance by tweaking state law. Last July, the Pa. Supreme Court unanimously overturned that law because it was enacted improperly.
As of Jan. 21 of this year, 5,652 people were back in the program. About 68,000 people received the cash benefit before it was discontinued.
In his proposed 2019-20 budget, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf set aside $50 million for the program.
But Saylor said the Wolf administration did not speak to Republican leadership about the plan for General Assistance before restarting the program, as requested.
“This General Assembly, or at least the House, is not going to pay for something that we’ve had no discussion in or determination in,” Saylor told the Capital-Star. “The court did not order us to start paying cash assistance again.”
That’s true, at least literally.
The state Supreme Court’s ruling struck down the law that eliminated General Assistance, but didn’t provide guidance on next steps.
It’s unclear if Pennsylvania lawmakers can decline to fund a statute on the books.
Attorney Maria Pulzetti of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, which brought the lawsuit against the state, said she could not comment on the question.
— Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler (@RepFiedler) February 28, 2019
Beyond the budget, there’s an effort in the House to end General Assistance through legislation. The bill, introduced by Rep. George Dunbar, R-Westmoreland, is awaiting consideration in the Health Committee.
A spokesman for Wolf declined to “speculate on the bill or the budget.”
“Earlier this month, the governor proposed funding the cash assistance program in his budget proposal, and continues to support this approach,” the spokesman, J.J. Abbott, said in an email.
In the face of dual challenges, a coalition of groups that work on health care, domestic violence, and poverty are banding together to save General Assistance.
They plan to send a letter to all members of the General Assembly next week, according to Patrick Keenan, director of consumer protections and policy for the Pennsylvania Health Access Network.
“Most of the individuals on the program are disabled and cannot work,” Keenan said. “It’s not that they’re unwilling. They’re unable to.”
In most cases, General Assistance serves as a stop-gap measure to help people survive while waiting for the feds to approve disability benefits like Social Security. On average, it takes two years for an application in Pennsylvania to be approved, Keenan said, and in many cases people must apply several times.
Once a person on General Assistance is approved for a federal benefit, the state is reimbursed by the feds.
The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence is also opposed to ending General Assistance.
The “fund is critical for victims of domestic violence,” spokeswoman Julie Bancroft said via email. “Victims face financial abuse in 99 percent of domestic violence situations. This often means that they don’t have access to cash and/or credit, which creates a significant barrier to accessing safety.”
Even though $200 a month isn’t a lot of money, “for a fleeing victim it can pay for a ride to safety or emergency or transitional housing,” Bancroft said. “Elimination of the fund would cut the only funds available for basic necessities for the most vulnerable Pennsylvanians.”
Saylor isn’t convinced the program is necessary.
In the six years when General Assistance was gone, Saylor said “nobody … ever complained about … not doing it anymore.”
“It’s just another way of throwing money at a problem that doesn’t solve [anything],” he said.
Pulzetti said she wished advocates for General Assistance had data that could show, for example, how many people became homeless after 2012 or went into the prison system.
There’s an effort underway to collect that information, as well as first-person stories from beneficiaries.
But as Pulzetti noted, vulnerable people aren’t in a position to advocate for themselves. People who depended on cash assistance “disappeared into areas that are even more marginalized,” she said.
Anticipating Republican opposition to funding General Assistance, Wolf in January proposed shifting the funds to support housing for low-income Pennsylvanians. “The governor looks forward to working with the General Assembly to ensure that these dollars remain dedicated to assisting our most vulnerable constituents,” his spokesperson said.
Keenan thinks more funding for housing is a worthwhile goal, but it’s “not the right thing for this particular population.”
“People need access to cash,” he said, especially when they’re unable to work and waiting for benefits to be approved.
Keenan believes that once members of the Legislature understand who General Assistance actually serves, they’ll support it.
“Many members are going to be surprised,” he said.
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