Small assistance payments to Pa.’s poorest have become a political football
John Voit uses the $102.50 he gets twice a month from Pennsylvania’s General Assistance program carefully — food, toiletries, “the bare necessities,” he said.
Mr. Voit, like many of the roughly 5,650 Pennsylvanians enrolled in General Assistance, has applied for federal disability assistance, a lengthy, often yearslong process.
In the meantime, he depends on General Assistance, a program whose modest benefit to a small group of impoverished Pennsylvanians has been subjected to several political and court battles for the better part of a decade.
Last month, Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, proposed ending the program as cash assistance, and instead putting roughly $50 million in General Assistance money toward a statewide affordable housing program. However, when Mr. Wolf gave his budget address to legislators last week, officials appeared to back off the proposal somewhat.
General Assistance was fully funded in its current form in the budget Mr. Wolf proposed Tuesday.
“We are not proposing any changes to the program unless and until the Republicans move forward with eliminating it,” Meg Snead, the governor’s secretary of policy and planning, said last week.
“Our intention is to continue General Assistance as it exists today,” she said. “We just also are thinking through, knowing that” there is opposition to cash assistance from Republican legislators, she said.
A House bill recently introduced by Rep. George Dunbar, R-Westmoreland, though, would end the program entirely.
The program’s cost “will crowd out other important spending priorities that must be addressed in the coming fiscal year,” Mr. Dunbar said in a memo seeking co-sponsors for his bill.
Changes to the program would require the approval of the Republican-controlled Legislature; spokespeople for both House and Senate Republican majorities have said they plan to examine proposals for the program during the budget process that will unfold in the Capitol for the next several months.
General Assistance was eliminated in 2012 by legislators and then-Gov. Tom Corbett. It was restored last year following a court decision that the Legislature had used unconstitutional measures to pass the bill that ended the program.
Last month, a number of advocacy groups expressed concerns about redirecting funds for the very poorest to a housing program that serves a broader range of low-and-moderate income households, as Mr. Wolf initially proposed.
If the funds were redirected to housing, they would go toward Pennsylvania’s Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement Fund, or PHARE.
The statewide housing fund doesn’t give money directly to individuals, but rather to organizations such as nonprofits or local governments that can apply for funding. The money can be used for building affordable housing or for supportive services, such as case management at a shelter, said Bryce Maretzki, director of policy and planning for the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, which administers the PHARE fund.
Last year, PHARE money went to a number of organizations and projects locally, such as Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh to assist homeowners to make needed repairs; to the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh to renovate affordable units in the Hill District; to Allegheny County to provide funds for emergency housing or security deposits to people displaced from their homes by fires, floods or disasters; to Action Housing for homes for low or moderate income buyers in McKeesport; and to the borough of Wilkinsburg for the creation of a community land trust.
PHARE is partly funded by Marcellus Shale impact fees and partly by revenues from the realty transfer tax, as well as money from the National Housing Trust Fund.
At least 30 percent of PHARE money must now go to households earning about $38,000 or less in Allegheny County — 50 percent or below area median income.
To qualify for General Assistance in Allegheny County, a person can’t make more than $205 a month, and can’t have more than $250 in “countable resources,” excluding a house and car.
Many states have eliminated General Assistance programs, said Liz Schott, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
General Assistance is “a safety net of last resort for those who are very poor and do not qualify for other public assistance,” she wrote in an analysis of such programs in other states.
“The bare essentials, that’s what I’m using it for. I would not want it to be used in affordable housing,” Mr. Voit said.
Referencing the amount General Assistance recipients receive monthly, he said, “We’re squabbling over $205 that people desperately need.”
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf delivers his budget address for the 2019-20 fiscal year on Tuesday to a joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate in Harrisburg.