In 2012, Pennsylvania’s Republican Governor Tom Corbett decided to save a bit of money by severing one of the few remaining threads of his state’s tattered safety net. General Assistance was the Keystone State’s cash welfare program, which offered $205 a month — at most — for people with disabilities, adults with non-related dependents, and — for a lifetime limit of nine months — those recovering from addiction or domestic abuse. It only cost $150 million a year — out of an annual state budget of nearly $30 billion — but the Republican-dominated legislature voted overwhelmingly to eliminate General Assistance, and Corbett signed what was known as Act 80 into law.
Means-tested programs by definition are aimed at helping the poor, who traditionally lack political clout, and are therefore largely unequipped to defend these policies against austerity-minded politicians. On the federal level, Social Security has thus far proved resistant to cuts because it is a broadly shared social insurance, while the food stamps program is regularly pared down and federal cash assistance for poor families have almost been “reformed” out of existence. State-level General Assistance policies that provide aid to the poorest of the poor have proven just as easy to undermine. Less than 30 states still offer such programs and only 12 help those who are not disabled.
General Assistance programs were once a more reliable part of the safety net, peaking in the 1970s after urban unrest and a short-lived unemployed persons advocacy movement pressured governments to offer more support. A generation ago, Pennsylvania was one of the most generous states in the nation, with monthly assistance in 1980 reaching nearly $500 when adjusted for inflation. But in 1982, Republican Governor Dick Thornburgh made the first cuts: Tens of thousands were expelled from the GA rolls, sending homeless shelter stays skyrocketing. The reform was meant to drive the recipients into the labor market, but few were able to find work. A September 1984 report from the Advocacy Committee for Emergency Services found that over a quarter of those who lost their benefits suffered health problems.
Elected officials, both Democratic and Republican, encouraged by the trend toward federal austerity under Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, eagerly hacked away at their state programs. Eight states eliminated their General Assistance programs between 1989 and 2010, while 13 ended coverage for those recipients deemed “employable.” The real value of assistance checks fell in all but three states, with Pennsylvania refusing to increase even the nominal amount since 1990. More rounds of cuts followed the recession, although Pennsylvania is the only state to have scrapped the program entirely since 2010.
In Philadelphia alone, 35,000 people lost their sole source of income when Governor Corbett eliminated General Assistance. The checks were desperately meager, but they were something for those who fell through the yawning gaps in the federal safety net. Among those left with no means of public cash support are children being cared for by non-relatives are ineligible for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, disabled people waiting years for their SSI and SSDI applications to be processed, and addicts trying to get clean in recovery houses.
In May the campaign of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf expressed support for re-establishing General Assistance in Pennsylvania and reaffirmed interest in late October. "The elimination of General Assistance has made it more difficult for low-income adults to access life-saving medications, buy healthy food, and pay rent,” said Jeff Sheridan, campaign manager for Tom Wolf. “As governor, Tom will work with the General Assembly to restore General Assistance for our most vulnerable residents."
Wolf is leading handily in pre-election polls, but if, as expected, he wins Tuesday, he will still face a legislature little changed from the one that voted for Act 80 two years ago. And if Pennsylvania’s cash benefit for the poorest stays dead, it will only be in keeping with the nationwide trend.
“General Assistance has been eroded for decades and almost nothing gets restored,” says Liz Schott, Senior Fellow with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.. “It may be that there are intermediate kinds of reductions that could be able to get loosened, but once a program is eliminated, I’m not aware of it coming back.”