America's Safety Net Under Attack

This Week in Poverty: Will Pennsylvania Rip Another Hole in the Safety Net?

If you've never heard of state-funded General Assistance (GA) programs, you're hardly alone. A "safety net of last resort" for very poor people--often childless adults--who don't qualify for other forms of public assistance, there aren't too many of them still in existence. Not too long ago most states offered them, but in recent decades they have been eliminated or severely restricted. Now, only thirty states maintain GA programs, and the benefit level for most falls below one-quarter of the poverty line, or less than $2,750 per year.

In a recent report for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), Liz Schott and Clare Cho call this trend "especially troubling" since "a growing number of jobless and elderly" are exhausting their unemployment benefits and continue to be unable to find work.

"Poor, childless adults are becoming even more vulnerable to severe hardship than in the past and are doing so in greater numbers," write the authors.

One state that still maintains a GA program is Pennsylvania where 68,000 people--or just about one in every 200 residents--receive about $205 per month (five counties offer a little more, twenty-eight counties a little less). But when Republican Governor Tom Corbett released his budget in February he proposed eliminating the program entirely as of July 1. A final budget must be passed and signed by that date, and with Republican majorities in the House and Senate, legal aid lawyer Michael Froehlich of Community Legal Services in Philadelphia says, "It's not looking good."

The prospect of the sudden elimination of the safety net of last resort is especially troubling when one considers who is eligible for it: disabled or sick adults without children; domestic violence survivors, many of whom have just fled abusers (lifetime benefit capped at nine months); adults participating in alcohol and other drug treatment programs (also capped at nine months); adults caring for someone sick or disabled, or an unrelated child; and children living with an unrelated adult. In all, over 90 percent of recipients are temporarily or permanently disabled.

"Only twelve states have GA programs for employable people, and Pennsylvania isn't one of them," says Schott. "It just serves unemployable people or a small number of persons for whom work is not appropriate, most of whom are children."

The GA program also serves as a sort of bridge loan while people wait for the Social Security Administration (SSA) to consider a disability claim. Froehlich says that process may take eighteen to twenty-four months, and upon approval of the claim the SSA reimburses the state for the GA benefits it paid during the wait.

"Individuals with pending disability claims use their General Assistance as a bridge that keeps them alive while their claim is pending," says Froehlich.

Froehlich and Community Legal Services are part of PA Cares for All, a coalition of more than 100 organizations that are trying to save the program. They press their case on both moral and economic grounds. The moral argument is pretty clear, and the coalition lays it out in a letter to state legislators: "These cuts will eliminate a lifeline for people in desperate crisis. This is not how Pennsylvanians want our government to treat abused women, people with disabilities, orphaned children, and people struggling to overcome drug addictions."

But it's the economic case that is perhaps more convincing in these times of budget cuts that routinely target the most vulnerable and least politically powerful people. The $205 per month enables many people to rent a room, pay for transportation to needed appointments, cover co-pays or escape abuse.

"If you eliminate the only source of income for these 68,000 Pennsylvanians overnight--folks who've already been determined by their doctors to be temporarily unable to work--it's not like they are just going to disappear," says Froehlich. "They are going to show up in the shelter system. Worst case scenario they're going to show up in the criminal justice system."

According to the coalition, GA's $205 monthly payment is a bargain compared to the monthly costs that would be incurred by the state if people are left destitute: homeless shelters run $1,050 per month, per person; foster care $600 to $1,800; incarceration $2,750; and state psychiatric hospitals average $20,584.

"Why are we ditching a system that keeps people off the street and housed in favor of a shelter system that costs five times that?" asks Froehlich.

One current GA recipient, 62-year-old "Suzy," has been receiving assistance for two years while waiting on the SSA to process her application for disability benefits. She lost her home three years ago after working as a college professor, in catering and food service, and as a tutor, and then caring for her two elderly parents until their deaths.

"I've had a bit of an eclectic career, but it has suited me," she says.

After losing her home Suzy found herself on the streets--"a place I never imagined I would be." The GA assistance enables her to rent a room in transitional housing. Even though her disability prevents her from working, she's interviewed for jobs anyway (to no avail) because she's so desperate for more money. She says the prospect of losing this last bit of assistance is overwhelming.

"It's too enormous and it's to the point where I almost go into a willful forgetfulness because I really don't know that I can deal with it," she says. "At this point I don't even have money to buy a toothbrush or a toiletry, and I'm not talking fancy, the dollar store will do."

Suzy says that a friend recently asked her what she would do if her assistance is cutoff on July 1? She replied, "Jump off a roof." The friend told her not to do that.

"And I said, 'You know something? I'm beyond at this point--I'm too tired. I'm beyond saying, Oh no, I won't do that anymore.' I just don't know, because it leaves you with nothing and a crushing burden," she says.

Suzy did manage to write a letter to her legislators lobbying them to vote against cutting the program, and Froehlich is hopeful that more Pennsylvanians will join in that effort and also participate in a lobbying day on May 7 as they become aware of the issue. But it's a tough road ahead. The governor's budget proposes significant cuts to K-12 education, higher education and programs for homelessness, mental health and other disability services. Without additional pressure, the GA program might be last in line for restored funding if any of the governor's cuts are reversed.

Froehlich says educators, colleges, universities and human services people are all doing an excellent job turning their people out to lobby.

"But it's very difficult for somebody who is really at the end of their rope to get on a bus, go to Harrisburg, and meet with their legislators," he says.

What frustrates Froehlich and the coalition most of all is that none of these cuts would be necessary--to any of the programs--if the Legislature would take up the revenue side of the equation. For starters, a planned phased reduction of a corporate "capital stock and franchise tax" beginning this year could be delayed; and corporate loopholes could be closed--like "the Delaware loophole," which allows three out of four companies in Pennsylvania to avoid paying state taxes by claiming a Delaware address. These loopholes represent billions in potential revenues, while the state's Department of Public Welfare estimates that eliminating the GA program will save just $150 million per year.

"I'm bewildered by these people, I really, really am," says Suzy. "They are just throwing people away. I guess it's their solution for the poor, if everybody just dies then that pesky, pesky, little problem will go away."

Read the full article with additional resources at The Nation.

© 2023 The Nation