Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett unveils his 2012-13 state budget proposal before the Pennsylvania House Chamber Tuesday, Feb. 7 2012 in Harrisburg, PA. (AP Photo/Bradley C Bower)
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.”