Members of the Poor People’s Campaign called on lawmakers to increase the state’s General Assistance benefit at a rally in the state Capitol. (Capital-Star photo by Elizabeth Hardison)
Michael Froehlich remembers being at his computer on a Tuesday morning in February 2012, anxiously waiting to see what the Department of Public Welfare’s budget would look like.
That would seem odd for the average Pennsylvanian, but not for Froehlich. At the time, he was an attorney with the Philadelphia-based Community Legal Services’ Public Benefits Unit, which helps people who are applying for or have been denied benefits from the government.
When it was published, he remembers seeing a graph that projected how many people would receive cash grants from two different programs for the poor: the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the state-funded General Assistance, which served adults with disabilities, survivors of domestic violence, and people with addiction.
“The General Assistance part of the graph just totally vanishes,” he recalls.
That year, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett proposed to completely eliminate the cash assistance program, which at the time was the sole source of income for more than 65,000 people. The vast majority — roughly 61,000 — had at least one temporary or permanent disability and received about $200 a month.
“The budget I bring you is built to transform the public welfare system. Not to eliminate it but to ’right size’ it,” Corbett said in his 2012 budget address. “It modifies programs to give incentives to those who are able to transition from the welfare line to the employment line while it gives real relief to our poor.”
“We never got advanced notice that they were thinking about this,” said Froehlich, who is now managing attorney of Community Legal Services’ Homeownership and Consumer Rights Unit.
Froehlich and other advocates got to work, lobbying legislators to save General Assistance. They launched the PA Cares for All campaign with stories from Pennsylvanians who benefitted from the program and brought some of those folks to Harrisburg.
“It honestly felt like we were winning,” he said.
But on June 29 — the day before the June 30 budget deadline — an old public welfare code bill in the Senate was revived. An amendment to eliminate General Assistance was tacked on — as was a provision to reauthorize a nursing home assessment program that netted the state hundreds of millions of dollars a year — and the bill was voted out of the Appropriations Committee.
The way Froehlich sees it, lawmakers then had a difficult choice to make — “pass this bill or there’s a huge hole in the budget.”
Pass it they did, just in time for Corbett to sign the bill mere hours before the end of June 30.
After a lengthy court battle led by Community Legal Services, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court last year declared the law unconstitutional because of how it was passed. General Assistance was reinstated by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration and, as of February, was serving 7,795 people with thousands more applications pending.
But there’s a Republican-led effort underway in the Legislature to end General Assistance once again, this time in a way that would survive a court challenge.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, has publicly declared that Republicans in his chamber aren’t interested in appropriating money for the program moving forward. The state House is also poised to approve a bill that eliminates the program effective July 1.
Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-Bucks, was one of just a handful of Republicans to vote against the elimination measure in 2012.
“It was put together real quick in a couple of days,” DiGirolamo said, adding that there wasn’t a lot of time to debate the bill’s merits.
The legislation passed without the support of most Democrats, some of whom offered an emotionally charged defense of the program shortly before the vote.
“Very few people are eligible for General Assistance in Pennsylvania, but for those who are, it is a critical last safety net,” then-Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Montgomery, said on the House floor on June 30, 2012. “The elimination of the General Assistance program will simple be paid for in human misery, and that is a cruel, high price to pay.”
The 2012 entreaties were nearly identical to ones offered by Democrats in late March, when the new elimination bill passed out of the House Health Committee.
Republicans rejected a series of amendments that would provide carve-outs in the bill — for veterans, pregnant women, and other groups — on the bill’s second consideration in the House on March 27. The legislation was referred to the Appropriations Committee and is poised to get a full House vote in the near future.
DiGirolamo said he plans to vote against eliminating General Assistance once again, but is at the moment trying to craft a compromise.
The state is reimbursed, he noted, when a person is approved for Social Security disability benefits. About 35,000 people who received in General Assistance before the program’s elimination had a permanent disability, he said — most of whom were waiting for federal benefits to kick in.
Ultimately, he knows his efforts may be unneeded.
“I’m almost positive the governor’s going to veto this,” DiGirolamo added. “We’re going through an exercise here … This is an exercise that doesn’t make any sense.”
Anticipating Republican opposition, Wolf proposed using money from General Assistance for housing instead. Advocates are opposed to that idea, instead arguing that having at least some cash — for toiletries, to pay a friend to sleep on their couch, or to save — is necessary for survival.
Wolf’s spokesperson said the governor would veto the elimination bill in its current form.
DiGirolamo said he’s still seeking information on how much the state was reimbursed by the feds before General Assistance’s elimination in 2012 in order to make his case to his fellow Republicans.
“These are vulnerable people, people in extreme poverty,” DiGirolamo said. “This is worth saving.”
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