After a six-year hiatus, Pennsylvania's General Assistance program is back in operation…without a budget. The Wolf administration's unilateral decision to resurrect a program, without identifying a funding source, is symbolic of the larger tension between the more-is-always-better vs. results-driven attitudes surrounding poverty issues in Harrisburg.
General Assistance is a monthly cash benefit for disabled adults, which ended under Act 80 of 2012. This summer, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled the act unconstitutional due to procedural violations. The Wolf administration interpreted this ruling to immediately reopen the program. Benefits began last month. That's problematic for two reasons.
First of all, no one is asking whether the program will help reduce long-term poverty. Those eligible for General Assistance are the same individuals that qualify for Medicaid expansion—a program with far more robust benefits that didn't exist in 2012. Poverty-reducing outcomes should be the justification of this program, not a “we've always done it this way” attitude.
Secondly, there is no appropriation for the program. Governor Wolf's administration is unilaterally spending tax dollars without approval from the General Assembly.
I don’t know where the governor gets his authority to spend the money. The program was discontinued, and if the governor wants to have a discussion about reviving it, we can have that discussion.
I don’t think there’s anything in the court ruling that says he had to revive the GA program immediately, the General Assembly appropriates dollars.
Is the governor going lone-wolf again and ignoring serious legal concerns? In 2012, General Assistance provided about $200 a month to recipients, at a total cost of $150 million a year. The administration anticipates these costs will be paid by supplemental appropriations (or dollars for cost-overruns) the administration seeks when it releases the governor's 2019-20 budget proposal.
Supplemental appropriations are nothing new for the Department of Human Services. Last year, the department sought more than $500 million for 2017-18 overruns.
As I wrote in August, these overruns will create pressure for higher taxes and further erode the economic conditions that those receiving assistance are struggling to overcome
Resurrecting a program simply because “the court says we have to” is misleading, dangerous, and does nothing to answer the larger and more important question: What is the best way to help more Pennsylvanians earn their own success?
The resurrection of General Assistance creates even more urgency for a simple food stamp and Medicaid work-requirement for healthy adults. With these reforms in place, Pennsylvania could help 100,000 individuals gain independence while freeing up resources for General Assistance or other programs designed to help disabled adults maximize their independence.