The Poor People’s Campaign, an alliance of political process reformers, social safety net supporters, environmentalists, racial justice advocates and many others made a stop in Harrisburg this week.
It’s a group with a long history.
The first Poor People’s Campaign was organized in the late ’60s — founded in part by Martin Luther King Jr., who was killed as it was getting off the ground.
The campaign was renewed on a national scale in 2017. And over the last year, its chapter in Pennsylvania has begun making regular trips to the state Capitol.
This year, preserving the commonwealth’s General Assistance program was one of the most pressing items on the list.
General Assistance gives cash to poor people who don’t qualify for other social programs, so they can buy things not covered by food stamps.
“We’re talking about women who are trying to leave domestic violence situations, children who are aging out of the foster care system, people who are caring for someone unrelated,” said activist Pat Albright. She relied on the program years ago after being laid off from a factory job, before she qualified for disability support.
Lawmakers got rid of GA in 2012, but the state Supreme Court brought it back last year on a technicality.
Republicans now want to cut it for good.
The program currently serves shy of 7,000 people, many of whom live in Philadelphia.
Democratic Governor Tom Wolf has said he wants to keep offering the service, and proposed allocating $50 million to it in his most recent budget pitch to lawmakers. But in the face of determined GOP opposition, he also offered a compromise — cut GA, but put the $50 million into PHARE, an affordable housing program.
“Governor Wolf hopes the General Assembly will ensure that these dollars, at the very least, remain dedicated to assisting our most vulnerable constituents,” a spokesman said in a statement.
Albright and other Poor People’s Campaign organizers maintain that is unacceptable.
“It’s not really serving the same purpose. We need both,” Albright said. “First of all, the money would only by 500 some households, and we’re talking thousands of people who would be cut off from General Assistance.”
General Assistance isn’t the only issue the Poor People’s Campaigners are raising.
Their total list of demands took more than ten minutes to read aloud, but highlights include empowering unions, making community colleges cheaper, banning fracking and oil and gas pipeline-building, and ending life sentences without the possibility of parole.
On some fronts, demonstrators said they’re seeing progress.
Rabbi Michael Pollack, who runs the group March on Harrisburg, has a slate of priorities that skew toward internal reform — for instance, banning state lawmakers from accepting gifts, changing how the state manages redistricting, and broadening voting laws to allow things like early ballot-casting and automatic registration.
The gift ban, he said, appears to be picking up steam on the committee level, and he is encouraged that a bipartisan group of senators is now backing a voting overhaul package.
These sorts of changes, Pollack said, have a direct line back to the Poor People’s Campaign’s fundamental mission.
“This building has a corruption problem, and it blinds them to what’s happening in 99 percent of Pennsylvania,” he said. “So, we feel the need to bring ourselves here and force the encounter and get some service.”