Pennsylvania Ends its General Assistance Program

Pennsylvania became the latest state to end its general assistance program last week, revoking benefits for nearly 70,000 of its citizens after a one-month extension ran out on August 1.

The program provided about $200 a month in temporary aid, much of it to adults without dependents who are deemed at least temporarily unemployable. The cut is expected to save about $150 million annually out of the state's $27.7 billion budget, which Republican Governor Tom Corbett signed June 30.

General assistance was Pennsylvania's catch-all program for those who didn't qualify for other safety net programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, commonly known as welfare, or who needed more assistance. Many of its beneficiaries were homeless, victims of domestic abuse, temporarily disabled, caring for a family member or otherwise ill.

The cuts have prompted angry protests across the Keystone State since the budget was signed.  As The Philadelphia Inquirer reported, more than 200 people protested and blocked traffic outside the governor's Philadelphia office on Tuesday, the day before the cut took effect.

"We're seeing absolute panic right now about how people are going to maintain their housing primarily, get to doctor's appointments, and pay co-pays for medicines," Marsha Cohen, executive director of the Homeless Advocacy Project, told the paper.

So far, the state is pointing those who received general assistance to other safety net initiatives they might be eligible for, such as food stamps or federally supported welfare. The state also points out that general medical assistance, which covers nearly 50,000 people, was not cut.

There was some evidence of confusion as Pennsylvania was readying for the cuts before the budget was even passed. The Department of Public Welfare, The Inquirer also reported, told the tens of thousands who receive general assistance that the program had been eliminated days before the legislature approved the budget.

A top agency official then threatened case workers with disciplinary action if they told aid recipients to contact lawmakers in support of general assistance, the paper reported.

"All CAO staff should be instructed NOT to direct the clients to their Legislator or Representative,” Rich Wallace, the welfare department's acting director of bureau operations, wrote in an e-mail obtained by The Inquirer. “Such direction is contrary to the Department's position on the matter.”

Pennsylvania's confusion and protests aside, though, the state's move is just the latest in a decades-long trend of states paring back benefits or eliminating their general assistance programs entirely. Fewer than half the states that offered wide-ranging general assistance benefits in 1989 still have those programs in place today.

Because general assistance programs are solely state-operated programs — as opposed to the state-federal welfare or food stamps programs —they are particularly ripe targets for budget-cutting. Illinois and Kansas eliminated their programs last year.

As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities found in a report on the programs last fall, just 30 states have any type of general assistance initiative, and only 12 of them have been offering assistance to those who aren't disabled. Pennsylvania was one of those 12, up until last week. In 1989, 38 states offered general assistance to the disabled and 25 states offered benefits to able-bodied, but otherwise eligible, recipients.

Even those states that have maintained programs over the years have scaled them back as budget pressures have mounted and spending has been diverted elsewhere.

Just three of the 25 states surveyed by the center offered more generous benefits in real dollars in 2011 than they did in 1989, when adjusted for inflation. Most others saw their benefits reduced over time, when adjusted for inflation, and in all but one state, the benefit provides income equal to less than half of the poverty line.

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