Refocus on Government Assistance that Transforms Lives for Good

Six years ago, the Pennsylvania legislature ended the General Assistance program, a monthly cash benefit to disabled adults. In that same bill, Pennsylvania strengthened food stamp work requirements (later rolled back) and created the successful human services block grant to counties.

It was a landmark bill and the first attempt at serious welfare reform in a decade. Last month, the state Supreme Court ruled the law had been passed without following constitutional provisions.

Despite the end of General Assistance, Pennsylvania's welfare system has grown precipitously. In 2012, General Assistance served about 68,000 individuals at a cost of $150 million a year. Recipients were typically non-working adults. On average, recipients received around $200 a month.

That same year, Medicaid enrolled 2.2 million moms, disabled individuals, extremely poor individuals, and children.

Since then, Medicaid has seen a 30 percent increase in enrollment—ballooning to 2.89 million—serving almost one quarter of Pennsylvanians. Overall, total spending in the Department of Human Services grew by more $11 billion, or 40 percent.

Following the court ruling, the Wolf administration has chosen to reinstate the General Assistance program—despite the fact that there is no funding for it in the state budget. It is unusual and extremely concerning that the administration would restart a program that the legislature zeroed out for six years, especially since the court's ruling does not compel the administration to immediately resurrect the program.

Taking federal funds designated for the TANF program will only result in short-changing existing programs or another round of eye-popping supplemental appropriations that will create pressure for higher taxes and further decline the economic conditions that those receiving assistance are struggling to overcome.

The legal ambiguity and alarming fiscal impacts of this situation call for immediate action for the state legislature to legally end the General Assistance program in favor of reforms that actually help individuals become independent.

This fall, the Senate should act on work requirement legislation for food stamps and Medicaid that fell to the wayside in June. With these reforms in place for working adults, Pennsylvania could help 100,000 individuals gain independence, freeing up resources to aid the disabled stuck in regulatory limbo.

We shouldn't define success as increasing dependence on government programs, but tracking and celebrating when individuals exit government programs through stable, family supporting jobs.

It's time for the Senate pass policies that have been proven to lift thousands out of poverty.