The Battle Over General Assistance and Our Poverty Problem

In 2012, lawmakers ended a small cash welfare program called General Assistance. Despite all the recent Democratic hubbub, none of the members actually tried to restart the program through the legislative process. For over five years, no one introduced legislation to replace the program.

Last July a case challenging the end of General Assistance reached the Pa. Supreme Court, and the justices struck down the 2012 legislation, citing problems with the procedure use to pass the law. Almost immediately after the court decision, with no funds appropriated and no mandate from the court, Gov. Wolf unilaterally re-started the program in November 2018.

Lawmakers rightly objected to this abuse of executive power and passed legislation in June to end the program a second time. That legislation took effect this week, prompting another lawsuit. And since those bringing the lawsuit failed to get an injunction to keep General Assistance operating, some Democrats are now calling on Gov. Wolf to declare a state of emergency.

The ongoing battle over General Assistance points to a larger problem in state government. Whether it’s education, roads, or human services, it seems the solution is always more money. But in too many cases, our human service programs suffer from poor design, not lack of funding. They unintentionally trap people in poverty.

How can we ensure our human service programs provide a viable pathway to independence? Even in the face of a chronic health condition or physical disability? We should never underestimate the ability of Pennsylvanians to contribute to their communities.

A common thread running through many of stories about General Assistance receipts is medical issues that prevent them from working and the two years it can take to get approved for disability payments. Apart from fixing the federal disability application process, a Medicaid block grant could help Pennsylvania address the challenges these Medicaid recipients face.

Under a block grant, we could establish health savings accounts so Medicaid recipients can earn matching funds that could be used to pay for copays, medical-related transportation, and over-the-counter medicines. We can do a much better job at targeting the nearly $30 billion to help 2.8 million Pennsylvanians.

And if you don’t think overhead is a problem, consider this. General Assistance beneficiaries received about $200 a month. According to DHS enrollment figures, the total cost for benefits from November to June 2019 would be around $13 million. However, former Budget Secretary Albright noted costs would be almost double, an additional $25 million in fiscal year 2018-19. How much did DHS spend to promote and administer the program?

General Assistance may have been a small program, but it suffered from the same problems much larger programs face; that is, a focus on the symptoms of poverty rather than the source.

Timeline: Pennsylvania's History of General Assistance