The roughly $200 Susan Brown receives every month from the state’s general assistance program buys her more than just groceries and rent. It affords her a sense of independence.
“I feel like an adult, like I’m participating in my own life,” said Brown, a 53-year-old Project HOME resident who asked to be identified by a different name due to privacy and safety concerns.
General assistance helps people with disabilities and their caretakers, people with substance use disorder, people seeking help after experiencing domestic violence and some other groups of Pennsylvanians experiencing poverty who do not receive the federally funded Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefit by providing monthly cash assistance.
After the program was eliminated by state legislation in 2012, general assistance started up again in November. But low-income residents are at risk of losing this support again: Four days before Christmas, the House of Representatives posted another bill calling for the elimination of general assistance.
Nearly seven years ago, at 11:45 p.m. on June 30, 2012, Gov. John Corbett signed Act 80 into law which, among other changes to the state’s human services, ended general assistance. On Oct. 1, 2012, a lawsuit was filed against the state for the act’s passing, stating that the procedure used to pass the act was unconstitutional.
Richard Weishaupt, a senior attorney for Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, was the lead counsel for the case when it was heard by Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court. Weishaupt argued that Act 80 violated the state’s constitution by bundling unconnected issues into a “must-pass” bill, meaning legislation that’s necessary to pass because of annual requirements, like balancing the state’s budget (which Act 80 did). Must-pass bills often include unrelated policy, according to the Senate’s glossary.
In July 2018, the court agreed with Weishaupt, 7-0, and the program was reinstated. People on general assistance received their first checks as 2018 came to a close.
The lack of monthly payments between 2012 and 2018 profoundly impacted the 68,000 residents who had received general assistance in 2012, Weishaupt said.
“We just heard all these horrible stories about people losing their place to live and not having money to buy basic necessities of life … not being able to afford to have a phone so that they can look for work, and not being able to have a place to live and as summer turned to winter, not being able to buy a winter coat,” he said.
During her time as the director of advocacy and public policy for Project HOME, Jennine Miller has noticed the monthly payment being “a small check, but it makes a big difference in people’s lives.”
It’s difficult to perfectly identify the original population that was receiving general assistance in 2012, Weishaupt said. People have died, moved, gotten jobs or otherwise “disappeared” from the system. The general assistance program is only servicing about 15,000 people now — a quarter of its 2012 total.
There are several barriers to people returning to general assistance, including an application that requires multiple documents and a mailing address — specifically hindering people experiencing homelessness. Awareness is also a challenge.
Social service providers in the city have done their best to reach out to the affected population. CLS has a page on its site explaining the program, and BenePhilly helps people enroll for public assistance at centers around the city for no cost.
Project HOME has its own BenePhilly counselor, who helped Brown understand a letter she received about a missed appointment. The counselor explained that she wasn’t disqualified for the program, as she had previously thought.
People applying for general assistance “need to know that it’s a slow process and when you get letters from welfare or agencies, don’t go and go crazy, [or] be upset right away,” Brown said. “Just check it out.”
As social service providers have been guiding people toward general assistance, 23 House members have sponsored House Bill 33 — the December 2018 legislation that calls for the program’s termination.
In a memo posted with House Bill 33, State Rep. George Dunbar of Westmoreland County writes that it is necessary because general assistance was not funded in the current fiscal year’s budget. He is listed as the bill’s prime sponsor.
“Without this legislation, the cost of this program — totaling roughly $150 million in its last year of operation — will crowd out other important spending priorities that must be addressed in the coming fiscal year,” Dunbar continues in the memo.
Dunbar’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The House’s attempt to strip this assistance from Pennsylvanians again is “cynical,” Weishaupt said.
Brown said general assistance is a vital stepping stone toward her goals: moving into her own apartment and attending business school. To Weishaupt, general assistance’s ability to support the plans of people like Brown outweighs any cost one assigns to the program.
“We did win a significant victory for low-income people, and it was very depressing to see this thing come back,” Weishaupt said. “We’re certainly going to resist the passage of that legislation just like we did the first time.”
Generocity is one of 22 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice.