By Jake Blumgart
K aye, a disabled 62-year-old Philadelphian, was facing a long wait for federal assistance. Luckily, Pennsylvania's general assistance program, which provides a tiny stipend to the state's most vulnerable citizens, filled the gap. At $205 a month, it wasn't much, but every little bit helps.
"General assistance barely kept me going, but it's a lifeline," said Kaye (not her real name). "How did it help me? It was there."
But it probably won't be there much longer. Budget proposals by Gov. Corbett and Republican lawmakers would end the $150 million program, cutting off almost 68,000 recipients, more than half of them in Philadelphia. Reports suggest the budget deal nearing approval retains the cut, meaning general assistance could be dead by next week.
Pennsylvania would join a growing list of states that provide no monetary aid to their poorest citizens without young children. Since the late '80s, about half the states have eliminated general assistance, which is an easy target for politicians who want to seem to be making tough budget decisions without enraging anyone powerful.
It's hard to imagine a less politically connected group than the low-income people helped by general assistance. In Pennsylvania, they include the temporarily disabled, those caring for elderly or disabled relatives, domestic violence victims, and recovering addicts (the last two subject to a nine-month lifetime limit).
The state has put forward no alternatives for those who are to be deprived of even this threadbare safety net. For many — particularly recovering addicts, who often use general assistance to pay for rehab — the termination could mean homelessness and a return to old habits.
"I didn't need a couple days of rehab; I needed long-term care," recalled Jake Fleming, care manager for NorthEast Treatment Centers and a former addict. "General assistance saved my life."
The human toll of ending the program is incalculable, but let's talk money — the ostensible concern of the politicians making the decision. Non-health-care public assistance makes up only 1 percent of state budgets, and general assistance is only part of that. Sure, eliminating it will save a little money, but probably not as much as it will cost in care for lapsed addicts who wind up in prison, psychiatric hospitals, and emergency rooms.
And don't believe anyone who says Pennsylvania has no money for general assistance. It simply has other, more dubious priorities. Instead of defending the well-being of our most vulnerable fellow citizens, our political elites have decided to maintain corporate tax loopholes, keep smokeless tobacco tax-free, and give breaks to Shell Oil. While we don't have the money for human welfare, we can still afford the corporate variety.
Corbett and his Republican allies surely feel they're striking a blow against the government behemoth. But they're just attacking citizens who have little representation in the process. They're doing what's easy, not what's right.