Baer: A case for Philly's neediest cases

It's a case under the radar, largely a forgotten issue.

It unfolds amid focus on cutting government spending.

It unfolds at a time too much media obsess over celebrity "news," entertainment, and click-bait lists of ways to shed that stubborn belly fat.

But it deserves attention.

Legal briefs are due this month in a state Supreme Court case impacting Philly's neediest adults.

It dates to 2012, when Gov. Tom Corbett signed legislation ending state-funded General Assistance (GA) to those deep in the shadows of life: single, disabled, or ill unemployed childless adults. Back then, there were 68,000 statewide; more than half, about 35,000, in Philly. They got $205 a month.

Gov. Wolf, as a candidate in 2014, said the cuts "neglected Pennsylvania's most vulnerable residents" and that he'd work to restore them.

Didn't happen. But candidates say lots of things.

And our legislature was - and is - much more interested in cutting business taxes and expanding access to booze and gambling.

This shouldn't be political. There's no Republican or Democratic disability or illness.

Yet, according to the nonpartisan Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Pennsylvania is the lone Northeastern state without General Assistance.

Richard Weishaupt, Community Legal Services senior attorney, is arguing the case for GA restoration on grounds the law Corbett signed is unconstitutional because its passage violated legislative rules. Such rules include constitutional mandates that bills deal with a single subject and get three days of consideration, mandates Weishaupt's brief says were not met.

This is an appeal of a 2013 Commonwealth Court ruling upholding the legislation. Responding on behalf of the state is Wolf's Department of Human Services.

It's difficult to accurately measure results of the cuts other than estimated savings of $150 million in a then-$28 billion budget.

And the affected class (there was also temporary aid for recovering addicts and women fleeing abusers) isn't one with political clout or even much of a voice.

But one result seems clear.

Sister Mary Scullion, of the Philly-based social services organization Project HOME, tells me the cuts "definitely impacted homelessness in a negative way."

Project HOME snapshot data show a significant increase in homelessness from January 2014 to January 2016.

"This small safety net was important," Scullion says. "It helped provide a room and some dignity. And cutting it was shortsighted, because the cost of a shelter is more."

Liz Hersh, director of the city's Office of Homeless Services, says, "There is no question that the loss of GA contributed to an increase in homelessness in Philadelphia, and the needless suffering of people with disabilities."

The money, she says, "meager as it was," was laundry money and "enough to get space on someone else's couch."

Two other factors are in play.

Some people stripped of GA have trouble getting even a hearing to qualify for federal disability benefits.

"I have a client waiting two years because Congress is underfunding SSI [Supplemental Security Income]," Weishaupt says.

And because Wolf's 2015 decision to expand Medicaid under Obamacare switched this affected group from state to federal health coverage, that coverage is now in doubt in the hands of Congress.

In short, the impacted poor, having lost cash assistance, could lose health coverage while enduring long waits for federal aid in the face of rising caseloads.

The Department of Human Services did not respond to requests for comment. The governor's office issued a statement saying Wolf "continues to have concerns about how this was done and how these people were treated," but that "it is extremely unlikely this program would be funded by the General Assembly."

Lawmakers should be ashamed of making and sustaining policy that neglects the state's "most vulnerable." And the Wolf administration should stand down from the legal defense of cuts Wolf himself decried.

baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls