The clock struck midnight on Tuesday, when the Department of Welfare, as directed by Governor Tom Corbett’s budget, terminated the General Assistance Fund, affecting more than 60,000 Pennsylvanians.
The GAF provided a lifeline — sometimes, the only one — for victims of domestic abuse, those in treatment and recovery, and children living in different households than that of their birth parents.
According to the non-partisan think tank Better Choices for Pennsylvania, the elimination of the General Assistance Fund’s $160 million earmark represents the biggest, single cut in Corbett’s budget, and will terminate the $205 monthly benefit for the now-former recipients. However, according to the Executive Budget, the commonwealth will actually cut $319 million from the combination of eliminating the General Assistance Fund and reforms made to the eligibility criteria for those seeking Medical Assistance.
While $205 may not sound like much, the termination of that benefit, along with that of the other provisions in the GAF, will surely hurt the very people who have been hurt the most.
“General Assistance funding was a last resort — a small but sturdy thread in Pennsylvania’s suddenly shabby safety net — for tens of thousands of our most vulnerable citizens. The program’s elimination is deeply troubling for 68,000 disabled individuals, domestic abuse survivors, drug/alcohol treatment center enrollees and children under the care of an unrelated adult,” said Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania Executive Director Liz Hersh, a longtime proponent of rights for the disenfranchised. “The overwhelming majority of these citizens will now be forced to go without their sole source of income as they struggle to keep a roof over their heads, secure a room in a boarding home, or pay for treatment program fees.
“By eliminating General Assistance, our elected officials run the risk of increasing homelessness, adding tens of millions in costs to other state programs, and exhausting already-overburdened private organizations,” Hersh continued. “All this, despite the fact that nearly four in five registered voters in Pennsylvania have said they oppose balancing the budget by cutting human services programs.”
There are elected officials who railed against the termination of the lifeline. State Representative W. Curtis Thomas blasted the decision in a letter he wrote to Corbett in June, while also voicing his displeasure that at that time lifeline recipients hadn’t been duly informed of looming cuts.
“As you know, this decision will involve an overwhelming number of individuals, children and victims of domestic violence who are considered disabled,” read Thomas’ letter, in part. “I am extremely troubled by this decision in light of a myriad of economic, social and medical circumstances which face people today more than any other time in the Commonwealth or the United States.
“I am more troubled by the fact this decision is being made in absence of a lifeline for people who have no other resources … the disabled population is not only without resources, but are also faced with physical and mental problems that aggravate their everyday challenges.”
Corbett’s budget includes $101.6 million for a children’s health program, representing an increase of 4.4 percent, along with $1.7 million for Adult Protective Services — but it remains to be seen if these and other programs will fill the gap left by the dissolution of the GAF. But for Hersh’s part, she hopes that elected officials and the public and private sectors continue to help those in need.
“Moving forward, it is imperative that our elected officials work with private organizations, faith-based efforts and citizens across the state,” Hersh said, “to use available resources to preserve a safety net for our most vulnerable citizens and alleviate the burden of homelessness throughout the Commonwealth.”