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.”

But it’s the economic case that is perhaps more convincing in these times of budget cuts that routinely target the most vulnerable and least politically powerful people. The $205 per month enables many people to rent a room, pay for transportation to needed appointments, cover co-pays or escape abuse.

“If you eliminate the only source of income for these 68,000 Pennsylvanians overnight—folks who’ve already been determined by their doctors to be temporarily unable to work—it’s not like they are just going to disappear,” says Froehlich. “They are going to show up in the shelter system. Worst case scenario they’re going to show up in the criminal justice system.”

According to the coalition, GA’s $205 monthly payment is a bargain compared to the monthly costs that would be incurred by the state if people are left destitute: homeless shelters run $1,050 per month, per person; foster care $600 to $1,800; incarceration $2,750; and state psychiatric hospitals average $20,584.

“Why are we ditching a system that keeps people off the street and housed in favor of a shelter system that costs five times that?” asks Froehlich.

One current GA recipient, 62-year-old “Suzy,” has been receiving assistance for two years while waiting on the SSA to process her application for disability benefits. She lost her home three years ago after working as a college professor, in catering and food service, and as a tutor, and then caring for her two elderly parents until their deaths.

“I’ve had a bit of an eclectic career, but it has suited me,” she says.

After losing her home Suzy found herself on the streets—“a place I never imagined I would be.” The GA assistance enables her to rent a room in transitional housing. Even though her disability prevents her from working, she’s interviewed for jobs anyway (to no avail) because she’s so desperate for more money. She says the prospect of losing this last bit of assistance is overwhelming.

“It’s too enormous and it’s to the point where I almost go into a willful forgetfulness because I really don’t know that I can deal with it,” she says. “At this point I don’t even have money to buy a toothbrush or a toiletry, and I’m not talking fancy, the dollar store will do.”

Suzy says that a friend recently asked her what she would do if her assistance is cutoff on July 1? She replied, “Jump off a roof.” The friend told her not to do that.

“And I said, ‘You know something? I’m beyond at this point—I’m too tired. I’m beyond saying, Oh no, I won’t do that anymore.’ I just don’t know, because it leaves you with nothing and a crushing burden,” she says.

Suzy did manage to write a letter to her legislators lobbying them to vote against cutting the program, and Froehlich is hopeful that more Pennsylvanians will join in that effort and also participate in a lobbying day on May 7 as they become aware of the issue. But it’s a tough road ahead. The governor’s budget proposes significant cuts to K-12 education, higher education and programs for homelessness, mental health and other disability services. Without additional pressure, the GA program might be last in line for restored funding if any of the governor’s cuts are reversed.

Froehlich says educators, colleges, universities and human services people are all doing an excellent job turning their people out to lobby.

“But it’s very difficult for somebody who is really at the end of their rope to get on a bus, go to Harrisburg, and meet with their legislators,” he says.

What frustrates Froehlich and the coalition most of all is that none of these cuts would be necessary—to any of the programs—if the Legislature would take up the revenue side of the equation. For starters, a planned phased reduction of a corporate “capital stock and franchise tax” beginning this year could be delayed; and corporate loopholes could be closed—like “the Delaware loophole,” which allows three out of four companies in Pennsylvania to avoid paying state taxes by claiming a Delaware address. These loopholes represent billions in potential revenues, while the state’s Department of Public Welfare estimates that eliminating the GA program will save just $150 million per year.

“I’m bewildered by these people, I really, really am,” says Suzy. “They are just throwing people away. I guess it’s their solution for the poor, if everybody just dies then that pesky, pesky, little problem will go away.”

TANF: Front-Page New York Times and More

New York Times reporter Jason DeParle did his characteristic outstanding job showing the severe limits of the welfare system—in this case, what happens to single mothers and their children when they can’t get Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits, or cash welfare. He does a real service by challenging this assertion by President Bill Clinton’s in 1997: “The debate is over. Welfare reform works.” DeParle notes that this “image of success formed early and stayed frozen in time.”

But the fact is that prior to welfare reform in 1996, 68 of every 100 poor families with children received cash assistance through Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). By 2010, with federal spending capped at 1996 levels and states having discretion about eligibility and time limits, just 27 of every 100 poor families received TANF assistance, and benefits in most states are less than 30 percent the federal poverty level. Simply throwing people off of welfare does not success make, and DeParle notes that just one in five poor children now receives cash aid and the average benefit is $350 per month for a family of three.

DeParle vividly depicts an underground economy where single mothers without TANF “have sold food stamps, sold blood, skipped meals, shoplifted, doubled up with friends, scavenged trash bins for bottles and cans and returned to relationships with violent partners—all with children in tow.”

While this story might not be new to Nation readers, it is nonetheless important to see it on the front-page of the Times at a moment when welfare seems completely off the political radar unless a Republican presidential candidate says something totally ignorant or provocative, and even then the debate is limited and doesn’t seem to sustain much beyond the news cycle.

But there is another significant part to this TANF story that DeParle doesn’t go into: that same desperation that forces women who are denied benefits to turn to an underground economy is also present for women and children who are in the TANF system. It’s a system that traps women in low-wage work, and they look for alternative means to survive. The entrepreneurship and the bonds that develop between women as they fight to improve their situation is something that could be harnessed, encouraged and supported through a reformed TANF, rather than punished.

The last couple of months I’ve been researching the experiences of single mothers on TANF in Philadelphia—experiences that seem similar to those of women in many cities. I’ll be writing in more detail about it in coming weeks, but here are some general observations on how many end up trapped in low-wage work and turn to an underground economy.

TANF reauthorization in 2005 made it more difficult for recipients who want to improve their job skills to count education toward their work requirement. Instead, they are channeled to for-profit training programs that contract with the city—to train as medical assistants, for example. Completion of the training program doesn’t necessarily lead to a job, and if it does it isn’t anything close to a living wage job. Sometimes the training program is then repeated with the same disappointing result.

Another option is “community service.” These volunteer jobs often involve filing or cleaning and the women don’t receive paychecks, just welfare benefits. One company benefiting from this labor is Comcast, which has TANF recipients cleaning toilets in the Comcast Building. An advocate calls it “being an indentured servant”—paying off benefits with no paycheck as long as women remain on TANF.

In the event a woman finds a better job that pays her more than welfare she sometimes faces a conundrum. She’s still eligible for subsidized childcare but she has to get on a long waiting list—I’ve heard months to years—because TANF participants receive priority. Without affordable, reliable childcare, the pay raise might be negligible or even a net loss. It can also lead to children being placed in childcare situations that increase the risk of abuse or neglect.

In these instances, a parent might choose to stick with the low-wage or “community service” job that provides childcare.

Needing more cash for their families to survive, some women in Philadelphia turn to the underground economy. Side businesses pursued by women on TANF include: hair-braiding; selling used clothes out of the front door; setting up a thrift shop on the corner with knick-knacks, household items, pots and pans, stuffed animals; making dinners and selling them off the front porch; doing nails; housekeeping for mildly wealthier friends; the extreme is prostitution and drug dealing.

The extra cash can’t be put in a bank—the maximum amount of assets one can own and still remain TANF-eligible is just $1000 in Pennsylvania, including all bank accounts, cash and property that isn’t one’s home residence. So that extra cash often gets hidden in a bra, or underneath a mattress, or is immediately used for shoes, food or something else for the kids. Another problem is that if there is too much cash around it’s very likely it will be stolen or lost. So it’s common to purchase something that’s hard to steal or that can be resold out the front door in a jam.

Dr. Mariana Chilton is a co-principal investigator for Children’s HealthWatch and founder of Witnesses to Hunger. Women in Witnesses to Hunger use photographs and stories to document their experiences in poverty and learn to advocate for change at the local, state and federal levels. These single mothers also form groups in their own neighborhoods to support and counsel one another as they navigate the system. There are forty-four participants in Philadelphia, and dozens more on the East Coast.

“People assume that women in TANF are stupid, lazy, inarticulate and passive—and that couldn’t be further from the truth,” says Chilton. “These ladies may not think of themselves as entrepreneurs, but they are, and they can make a huge difference in their own lives and communities if the environment were right. TANF is not setting up the right environment.”

Chilton proposes that TANF test a group micro-lending project that would build wealth through financial literacy training, nutrition education, access to banking services and microfinance in the form of small loans of less than $1200. These efforts would be undertaken by groups of ten to fifteen women who would meet weekly to encourage each other to save funds, repay loans and provide social support. Business ideas that would be supported include hair braiding, providing childcare, janitorial and housekeeping services, home decorating, catering, operating Internet cafés or small retail stores, tailoring and making specialty gifts. Measurable outcomes would include indicators of the families’ ability to lift themselves out of poverty, and improved health among mothers and their children.

Chilton has spoken with individuals at the Pennsylvania Department of Welfare and the US Agency for Children and Family Services and representatives have expressed openness to the project.

“We know through Witnesses to Hunger that there is power in the group—we’ve been keeping these various groups together for almost four years now,” she says. “When a group of three or more women really bonds together, the power in the room is enormous. Because there’s an enormous amount of resource sharing, energy, support and camaraderie, it helps them overcome their social isolation. They are very disempowered by the isolation. When they come together they actually see that they have a lot of power: they help each other, they provide advice, they pool their resources and money, they provide childcare, they do all different kinds of things.”

Chilton’s idea is partly influenced by the Society for the Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP) in Andrha Pradesh, Hyderbad, India. It supports over 900,000 self-help groups providing employment to over 10 million rural poor women and implementing World Bank–assisted poverty alleviation projects. Some of the women have now started feeding centers, for example, where any mother who’s very poor can come and receive three meals a day, seven days a week.

On May 2–4 in Philadelphia, SERP representatives and participants from India will be joining Chilton and Witness to Hunger participants at the Beyond Hunger: Real People, Real Solutions conference. (More information below in “Upcoming Events.”) A lot of times people go to anti-poverty conferences and say that they hear too much from guys like me, and not enough from the people actually living through these hardships. This definitely won’t be that kind of conference.

I’ll be there though, and I hope readers will consider coming too. It’s a great opportunity to learn a lot about the challenges faced by low-income people in America today, and how we can create a system that truly supports opportunity, self-sufficiency and community.

Recent Stories from

Disabled Vietnam War veteran John France lives in Hawaii with his wife Stephanie. They live in a pink wooden house, built on the edge of the bush. Not on the grid, they get power from a generator and water from a local public well. They can only afford to run their generator two hours a day, meaning they go to bed at 7 or 8 o’clock in the evening, when the light runs out. Their major desire in life? Electricity. Their major fear? Growing old and having to carry heavy loads of water to the house each day.

Sixty-three-year-old Emily Kamali recently paid off her small house located deep into the backroads of Hawaii’s Big Island. The landscape is lush, the house chaotic. Dogs roam the yard; the small living area is filled with bric-a-brac. Kamali and her husband live on a few hundred dollars a month in Social Security and a couple hundred dollars’ worth of food stamps. Routinely, the money runs out before the end of the month; when that happens, the generators go off and they use candles; they eat out of cans, and they rely on friends to make ends meet. Abused as a child, Kamali has had an unremittingly hard life. Recently, when her granddaughter got married, she shaved her head into a mohawk and dyed it purple. It makes her smile, makes her forget some of the accumulated pain.

Get Involved

Coalition of Immokalee Workers 2012 Northeast Tour. Farm workers from Immokalee and their allies in the student and faith communities head north up I-95 to Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Join them as they keep the heat on supermarket chains Stop & Shop and Giant, as well as Chipotle, for their refusal to partner with farmworkers and support the CIW’s Fair Food Program. Whole Foods, McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway and many others have already signed onto the program.

99% Spring Action Training. From April 9–15, 100,000 people will train to tell the story of our economy, learn the history of nonviolent direct action, and use that knowledge to take action and win change. You can find an event here.

“Protest Like It’s 1991” with the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) on April 17, Equal Pay Day, in Washington, DC. Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Donna Edwards have introduced legislation that would raise the tipped minimum wage—it’s been stuck at $2.13 an hour since 1991. The increase is opposed by the National Restaurant Association (the other NRA) and Republicans despite the fact that waiters and waitresses have three times the poverty rate of the rest of the US workforce. ROC will protest the NRA’s public affairs conference where Speaker John Boehner will keynote. 11 am, NRA Headquarters, 1200 17th St. NW. For more information contact ROC.

Upcoming Events

The Impact of Poverty on Education, Thursday, April 19, 1–3 pm at 106 Senate Dirksen Building, Washington, DC. Four experts provide different perspectives on the impact of poverty on educational attainment and resulting implications for federal policymaking. Sponsored by the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education and the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education.

Beyond Hunger: Real People, Real Solutions: May 2-4, Doubletree Hotel, 237 South Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107. Registration is $399. Scholarships are available for low-income participants and organizations seeking financial assistance. Get to know researchers, funders, Congressional staffers, journalists, government leaders, Sesame Street, micro-financiers, youth poets and people who know hunger and poverty first-hand. Keynote speakers include Antwone Fisher, author and filmmaker, and Gwen Ifill, managing editor of Washington Week and senior correspondent and co-anchor for PBS NewsHour.

RESULTS International Conference: Early Bird Discount ends this Monday, April 16. Conference is July 21–24 in Washington, DC. The conference offers inspiring, high-level speakers; educational workshops on effective poverty solutions; advocacy skills trainings; and lobbying on Capitol Hill on domestic and international poverty issues.

Notable Studies

Self-Inflicted Wounds,” Coalition on Human Needs. This report has some of the only estimates of how the automatic (“sequestration”) cuts slated for January 2013 would impact human needs programs. Page 21 in particular includes a comparison of the revenues generated by passing the Buffett Rule ($171 billion over ten years) to the dollar value of proposed cuts in the food stamp program; elementary, secondary and special education; and Head Start, among other programs. The Senate is scheduled to take up the Buffett rule next week.

Impact of Food Stamps on Family Homelessness in New York City,” Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness (ICPH). In 2010, 50% more New York City families received SNAP benefits than at the start of the recession in 2007. Unfortunately, these benefits are calculated without accounting for the city’s higher cost of food. This brief outlines how families at risk of homelessness are struggling to balance adequate nutrition with housing costs.

The Assets Report 2012,” New America Foundation. Every year the federal government allocates hundreds of billions of dollars of resources to support a range of activities to help families move up the economic ladder and increase their economic security. Yet most of these benefits are delivered through tax subsidies that favor higher-income households. Families with lower incomes and fewer resources, who would benefit the most, receive a fraction of the support.

Further Reading

Welfare Limits Left Poor Adrift as Recession Hit,” Jason DeParle
Identifying Who’s Poor in Minnesota and Why,” Cynthia Boyd
Is Marriage a Poverty Buster?” Jodie Levin-Epstein
Which Came First—Poverty or Teen Pregnancy?” Marisa Nightingale
Nobody Goes it Alone,” Kirsten Lodal
You’re on Your Own, Kids: The End of Welfare as We Know It,” Robert Scheer

Special Thanks

Thanks to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) for awarding This Week in Poverty a 2012 NASW Media Award.

Vital Statistics

US poverty (less than $22,314 for a family of four): 46 million people, 15.1 percent of population.

Children in poverty: 16.4 million, 22 percent of all children.

Number of poor children receiving cash aid: one in five.

Poverty rate for people in female-headed families: 42 percent.

Single mothers with incomes under $25,000: 50 percent.

Single mothers working: 67 percent.

Women over 65 living without economic security: 60 percent.

Deep poverty (less than $11,157 for a family of four): 20.5 million people, 6.7 percent of population.

Impact of public policy, 2010: without government assistance, poverty would have been twice as high—nearly 30 percent of population.

Quote of the Week

“It is a cautionary tale that dropping people back on the street does not give them hope, it just turns them fairly desperate. All of these holier-than-thou and sanctimonious politicians—don’t sit there and point fingers at the people that you’ve turned your backs on who are simply trying to survive.”
      —“Suzy,” during interview regarding General Assistance program

This Week in Poverty posts every Friday morning. Please comment below. You can also e-mail me at or follow me on Twitter.