HARRISBURG – A move to eliminate the general assistance program means that about 11,000 Pennsylvanians who don’t qualify for other state-run welfare programs will stop getting just over $200 a month, according to the Department of Human Services..
July is the last month the state will make payments to the people who’ve been receiving assistance through the program, said Erin James, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services.
Advocates say that 80 percent of the people who get the aid are people with disabilities who are waiting for approval to get Social Security benefits.
"The Department of Human Services is working closely with our partners throughout the commonwealth to ensure that accurate and helpful information is reaching recipients of General Assistance," James said. "To the best of our ability, we are connecting people with available resources and making the nonprofit community aware of the potential for increased need."
Republicans have criticized the program as having too little accountability and being focused on adults without children. The state eliminated the assistance program in 2012. The state Supreme Court revived it last year by ruling that the law eliminating general assistance had been passed too quickly after it was amended.
The current move to eliminate the benefit was included in a broader budget bill passed in late June. Debate over the measure in the state Senate climaxed with an ugly scene – with state Sen. Katie Muth, D-Montgomery County reading a statement from a Pennsylvania man who’s received assistance from the program while Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman screamed at Lt. Gov. John Fetterman to stop Muth.
Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, signed the budget bill that killed the assistance program while making clear that he wasn’t pleased to do it.
“I will keep fighting for support for our most vulnerable neighbors.
“That’s why even though the legislature eliminated general assistance, I made sure to include an additional $15 million for low-income housing assistance,” he said. “This will help a lot of the same individuals who previously received general assistance from the commonwealth.”
The measure to eliminate the benefit was authored by state Rep. George Dunbar, R-Westmoreland County. In late June, he defended the move by saying that the assistance is an example of the type of programs “that proliferate fraud and government dependence,”
Dunbar pointed to auditor general investigations into potential fraud in the program. In 2011, the state’s Auditor General Jack Wagner released a report that found that in May 2010, Electronic Benefits Transfer cards had been used to make more than $5 million in out-of-state purchases. The EBT cards are given to people enrolled in a number of state-run welfare programs, including the general assistance program, according to Wagner’s report. At the time, he said that due to lax state oversight, it was impossible to know if they out-of-state purchases were in any way illegal.
Maria Pulzetti, a staff attorney for Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, said that there simply aren’t programs in place to help the people who’ve been receiving general assistance benefits. Disabled people generally have to wait through a two-year backlog before they start getting disability payments from Social Security, she said. The general assistance program helps those those people make ends meet while they wait for the federal aid, she said.
In addition to those who are disabled, the program also helps people who are in drug treatment that prevents them from working. It also helps people who are fleeing domestic violence but don’t have children, she said.
Pulzetti said that based on state data from prior to the 2012 move to eliminate the program, most people who’d been receiving general assistance got it for less than a year, she said. It’s a benefit that people use to help pay for rent, or for transportation or for other basic needs – like toilet paper and laundry detergent.
Community Legal Services has posted information on its web site to help people determine if they can get help from other government programs, Pulzetti said. But, in most cases, the people who have been getting assistance won’t be eligible for other programs.
That has advoctes worried that some of those receiving general assistance will find it difficult to get to medical appointments or that they will find themselves trying to make do without basic essential household products, she said.
“They are going to be vulnerable,” Pulzetti said.