As part of a planned overhaul of the state’s public benefits programs, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf has announced a plan that would redirect money currently used for General Assistance—a program that provides monthly cash payments for certain low- and no-income people who aren’t eligible for other public benefits—to a state housing fund.
The administration says the plan was developed partly in recognition that the Republican-controlled legislature could eliminate General Assistance outright pretty much any time, as it tried to do six years earlier (a state Supreme Court ruling last summer reinstated the program). Instead of having those funds taken away from the social safety net altogether, Wolf has proposed putting the money into the Pennsylvania Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement Fund, which has administered money to almost every county in the state and, the administration believes, has more bipartisan support than General Assistance.
Meg Snead, the secretary of policy and planning for the Governor’s Office, emphasizes that the administration isn’t proposing that General Assistance be eliminated. It will present a budget that keeps the program intact, but is hoping to negotiate another use for that funding on the assumption that the Republican-led legislature will eliminate the program again.
The state Supreme Court decision that reinstated the program only found that the state legislature hadn’t followed proper procedures when it voted to eliminate the General Assistance program six years ago, not that the program couldn’t be eliminated. So last month, Republican Representative George Dunbar introduced another bill that would bring an end to the General Assistance program once again.
That’s part of the reason why Wolf is proposing an alternative to a program his administration would rather keep. “We hope that we would still be able to meet almost all the needs of this population and hopefully a broader population, while recognizing that cash benefits would no longer be available,” Snead says.
In most cases, General Assistance provides up to $205 a month for people with no other income. Even though the program didn’t exist for the last six years—and the monthly benefits are tiny—advocates say that it’s a crucial lifeline for people who have nowhere else to turn.
“We think cash assistance is incredibly important for people and that the General Assistance program as it currently exists is critical and it’s cost effective,” says Amy Hirsch, managing attorney for the North Philadelphia Law Center run by Community Legal Services. “Because it’s been gone for six years, a lot of people don’t know anything about it so we are excited about having a conversation across the state about general assistance.”
Hirsch says that most recipients of General Assistance benefits are people with disabilities that prevent them from working. The program is also available for children whose caretakers are unrelated to them, people in drug treatment programs, victims of domestic abuse, and some others. Before it was eliminated, more than 60,000 people were enrolled in the program, but five months after it was reinstated, according to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette report, General Assistance was serving less than 6,000 people.
Would using the money for housing programs instead of cash payments benefit the same people?
Not likely, says Hirsch. The payments from General Assistance aren’t typically enough to pay rent, but having a bit of money to purchase basics can make the difference between whether a friend or relative will let someone sleep on their couch, she says.
“In order to move forward with your life and take care of yourself, you need cash assistance,” says Hirsch. “Housing doesn’t pay for bus fare. Housing doesn’t pay for copays for your medications. Housing doesn’t get you a warm jacket in the winter. It doesn’t get you a bar of soap, or a toothbrush, or toothpaste, or basic toiletries and necessities.”
According to a 2015 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, state-run general assistance programs are on the wane. Twelve states eliminated their programs between 1989 and 2015, the report said, while the inflation-adjusted value of the benefit was down across the board. (The monthly payment in Pennsylvania hasn’t been adjusted since 1990, Hirsch says.) Ohio also ended its cash assistance program in 2017, notes Liz Schott, a senior fellow in the Family Income Support Division at CBPP. In an op-ed last week, Pennsylvania state senator Vincent Hughes and Rev. Gregory Holston, who runs the group POWER Interfaith, urged Governor Wolf and the legislature to continue the General Assistance program and fund affordable housing efforts separately.
The Wolf administration acknowledges that cash assistance is a unique benefit that other programs can’t entirely replace.
“We know that housing is not cash,” Snead says. “The wool is not pulled over our eyes; they’re not the same. But we do think our proposal saves those dollars in a way that still gets at the root of being able to address those social determinants of health and meet the needs of a very vulnerable population.”
Hirsch says that the state shouldn’t give up on the program. For the last six years, she says, the hardest part of her job has been telling clients that there is no cash assistance available from the state, even if they can’t work and have no other source of income.
“When you explain to them that there is no source of financial help for someone who has no income and is unable to work, it just is astonishingly difficult for people to grasp and accept,” Hirsch says. “And it should be difficult for people to grasp and accept.”
Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.