I highly, highly recommend Daniel Denvir’s recent City Paper piece on the human costs of Act 80, the safety net-slashing law that Governor Tom Corbett signed over the summer. It is being challenged in court by Community Legal Services of Philadelphia (CLS) and various other advocacy groups. Act 80 eliminates general assistance, the state cash welfare program for very specific categories of the impoverished population (92 percent of those who received the $205 monthly checks are disabled), and “tightens work requirements for mothers on welfare and pilots a policy of rolling seven line-item social-service funds into single block grants to counties.”
The elimination of general assistance is particularly shameful. American public opinion has traditionally been easily turned against cash welfare programs, which the ignorant and bigoted seem to believe is simply blown on frivolous luxuries. Food stamps and other forms of targeted assistance are all well and good, but poor people (like everyone else) have a variety of expenses: They know what they need to spend money on. You know, frivolous things like rent and transportation.
People kicked off General Assistance…now have trouble finding money for rent, Medicaid drug prescription co-pays, transportation to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, doing laundry and buying toiletries, says CLS attorney Michael Froehlich. And winter isn’t even here yet. “I suspect the real harm we’ll see in Philadelphia is when it starts getting cold.”
Clients are also asking for services H.O.M.E. generally did not previously provide: “showers, toiletries, laundry services and tokens. … They don’t have the income.” And the number of young people in their 20s on the street, she says, is growing. “Nothing can replace cash. And I think that’s what people don’t realize.”
Floyd, a recovering addict with years of job experience, is now in his third semester at Community College of Philadelphia. He wants to find work where he can help homeless people with mental disorders and addiction. But he’s having trouble affording daily life: SEPTA tokens, soap, toilet paper, toothpaste, laundry — all the little things that $205 a month just barely covered. People don’t seem to recognize, he says, how a person can sink under life’s smallest expenses. People think, he says, that welfare recipients “don’t need the money, they have food stamps. Well, food stamps just covers food.”
In my experience, state our Republican-controlled state government passes anti-poor laws simply because their voting base has specific, and extremely prejudiced views of poor people and because they’d prefer to spend the money on other thins, like tax cuts for favored companies. When Corbett raised the eligibility limits for those receving food stamps, I called his Department of Public Welfare to ask what the rationale behind the new policy was. Had they conducted a study that showed huge numbers of people with fat savings accounts utilizing SNAP? Had they uncovered actual fraud or abuse? No and no. They’d just heard a lot of complaints from constiutents, who worried about people abusing the system. In short, the new law was not a result of anything that actually had anything to do with real life poor people. It simply reflected the prejudices of right-wing suburban voters. That isn’t a sound basis for policy.
Denvir’s story is important because it reflects the actual experience of people who get crushed by these political decisions. He talks to real people and gets their stories. Which is more than our lawmakers seem to do.
Below the fold you can find my Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed on the elimination of general assistance, published a few days before Corbett put pen to paper. It also features the tales of two hurting Philadelphians. Now, half a year later, with winter coming on their stories are more important than ever.
Kaye, a disabled 62-year-old Philadelphian, was facing a long wait for federal assistance. Luckily, Pennsylvania’s general assistance program, which provides a tiny stipend to the state’s most vulnerable citizens, filled the gap. At $205 a month, it wasn’t much, but every little bit helps.
“General assistance barely kept me going, but it’s a lifeline,” said Kaye (not her real name). “How did it help me? It was there.”
But it probably won’t be there much longer. Budget proposals by Gov. Corbett and Republican lawmakers would end the $150 million program, cutting off almost 68,000 recipients, more than half of them in Philadelphia. Reports suggest the budget deal nearing approval retains the cut, meaning general assistance could be dead by next week.
Pennsylvania would join a growing list of states that provide no monetary aid to their poorest citizens without young children. Since the late ’80s, about half the states have eliminated general assistance, which is an easy target for politicians who want to seem to be making tough budget decisions without enraging anyone powerful.
It’s hard to imagine a less politically connected group than the low-income people helped by general assistance. In Pennsylvania, they include the temporarily disabled, those caring for elderly or disabled relatives, domestic violence victims, and recovering addicts (the last two subject to a nine-month lifetime limit).
The state has put forward no alternatives for those who are to be deprived of even this threadbare safety net. For many — particularly recovering addicts, who often use general assistance to pay for rehab — the termination could mean homelessness and a return to old habits.
“I didn’t need a couple days of rehab; I needed long-term care,” recalled Jake Fleming, care manager for NorthEast Treatment Centers and a former addict. “General assistance saved my life.”
The human toll of ending the program is incalculable, but let’s talk money — the ostensible concern of the politicians making the decision. Non-health-care public assistance makes up only 1 percent of state budgets, and general assistance is only part of that. Sure, eliminating it will save a little money, but probably not as much as it will cost in care for lapsed addicts who wind up in prison, psychiatric hospitals, and emergency rooms.
And don’t believe anyone who says Pennsylvania has no money for general assistance. It simply has other, more dubious priorities. Instead of defending the well-being of our most vulnerable fellow citizens, our political elites have decided to maintain corporate tax loopholes, keep smokeless tobacco tax-free, and give breaks to Shell Oil. While we don’t have the money for human welfare, we can still afford the corporate variety.
Corbett and his Republican allies surely feel they’re striking a blow against the government behemoth. But they’re just attacking citizens who have little representation in the process. They’re doing what’s easy, not what’s right.