Small as­sis­tance pay­ments to Pa.’s poor­est have be­come a po­lit­i­cal foot­ball

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Front Page - By Kate Gi­ammarise

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.”

Matt Rourke/As­so­ci­ated Press

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.

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