by Neil Cosgrove
Homeless persons, for obvious reasons, find voting difficult. And people applying for Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) just as obviously can’t make large donations to political candidates. Maybe such realities help explain the animosity that some Harrisburg politicians have towards the state’s General Assistance program.
Until August 1st an estimated 11,000 to 12,000 Pennsylvanians were receiving $205 a month to help them live while, for instance, they were applying for SSDI or Social Security Income (SSI), or escaping from a domestic abuse situation. The recipients included veterans (the Pennsylvania Poor People’s Campaign says around 1,400 are currently sleeping on the state’s streets), younger people who are too old to qualify for care in a foster home, and people newly released from prison with nothing in their pockets. “General Assistance,” observes the Poor People’s Campaign, “can make a difference in a person being able to rent a room, buy some toothpaste, or maybe even a tent when forced to live on the street.”
Such considerations were clearly not on the mind of the Republican-controlled legislature when, in late June while finishing up the state budget, it passed a bill (Act 12) eliminating the program and made a governor’s veto difficult by including an allocation for nursing home Medicaid payments and a measure to generate hospital revenues in the same bill.
Because the Pennsylvania constitution prohibits passing a bill when its purpose is “improperly changed during the legislative process” and it addresses several unrelated subjects, Community Legal Services and Disability Rights Pennsylvania (DRP) filed a July lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Act 12 and seeking an injunction to stop the elimination of GA while the case works its way through the courts.
But the Commonwealth Court rejected the request for an injunction, arguing “that the groups failed to show that ending the general assistance would cause immediate and irreparable harm to those receiving the benefits,” Jan Murphy of PennLive reported. Maybe the court recalled that Pennsylvanians had already gone without GA for six years, from when the legislature and Governor Tom Corbett ended the program in 2012 until the state Supreme Court ordered it restored in July of 2018, citing unconstitutional legislative maneuvering similar to the present case.
Legislators’ arguments for cost-cutting (the program would spend $50 million of the recently passed $34 billion state budget) and that GA is susceptible to fraudulent claims are almost laughable, when one balances the program against billion-dollar tax abatements which seldom result in the promised number of jobs, or tax loopholes for corporations who say their head offices are located in the equivalent of a broom closet in a Delaware office building.
Back in the winter, with Republican legislators seemingly hell-bent on eliminating General Assistance, Governor Wolf made one of those feckless attempts at compromise for which Democratic politicians are notorious. He offered to phase out GA while using the allocated funds to support developments of affordable housing. Housing advocates immediately howled in protest, while the Poor People’s Campaign pointed out that only an estimated 538 housing units would be created through the governor’s proposal, compared to the many thousands receiving General Assistance. The program’s money would be transferred upwards to developers, the Campaign observed, while “no dent” would be ultimately made “in the waiting list for affordable housing.” In any case, the governor’s idea predictably went nowhere in the legislature.
So, another strand has been cut in the state’s fraying social safety net, and the most unfortunate and vulnerable among us continue to languish and suffer. During a time of so-called “full employment,” the streets of Pittsburgh witness apparent growth in the number of homeless and people hoping for a hand-out, as a “hand-up” is habitually seen by legislators as a threat to the fiscal health of our state andfederalgovernments.
One can only hope that the lawsuit challenging the legislature’s latest act of gratuitous cruelty towards the poor moves more quickly through the state courts than was previously the case, and that General Assistance is restored. In the meantime, ongoing activism on behalf of the “over five million poor and low-income people in Pennsylvania, and millions more who are one emergency away from poverty” (according to the Pennsylvania Poor People’s Campaign) is essential. The NewPeople plans to keep its readers alert to planned actions seeking to preserve and adequately fund social welfare programs.
Neil Cosgrove is a member of the New People editorial collective and the Merton Center board.
Originally published in VOL 49 No. 7, September 2019