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The general mess around Pa.’s General Assistance | John Baer

A small humane-aid program aimed at the state's most vulnerable is caught in a web of politics and funding "priorities" threatening its future.

Homelessness is just one of the issues General Assistance is aimed at easing. Yesenia Cruz, 33, a homeless woman who took part in a protest last November on behalf of women looking for placement in the city's shelter system, slept during a sit-in at a city office.
Homelessness is just one of the issues General Assistance is aimed at easing. Yesenia Cruz, 33, a homeless woman who took part in a protest last November on behalf of women looking for placement in the city's shelter system, slept during a sit-in at a city office.Read moreAlfred Lubrano / File Photograph

Sometimes political pragmatism can hurt.

Take the effort to resolve the mess surrounding Pennsylvania’s General Assistance program.

The program provides small cash grants to the most vulnerable, those flat on the seafloor of the economic tide.

Qualifiers constitute a class to which no one wants to belong.

Roughly 90 percent have permanent or temporary disabilities. People who can’t work. People with no income. Also, people in rehab. And victims of domestic violence displaced from their homes.

They’re almost all adults with no dependent children or without custody of their children, though some child cases qualify, including orphans living with nonrelatives.

Grants range, depending on local cost of living, from $170 to $215 a month ($205 in Philly). Most are not ongoing. They’re to help folks applying for Social Security disability income, a process that can take two years.

And grants to domestic violence victims and those in rehab are restricted to nine months over one’s lifetime.

Oh, and the feds reimburse the state when disability applicants are approved.

The money is for basics. To rent a bed from a friend. Share a room somewhere. Buy over-the-counter meds. Or bus fare. Or soap or deodorant. Or to do laundry.

The program is humane. It’s been around for decades.

Well, it was around, then it wasn’t. Now it’s back, but looks like not for long.

See, the Republican legislature and then-Gov. Tom Corbett ended it in 2012 when it was a $150 million item in a $28 billion budget. It served about 68,000 folks -- more than half in Philly.

Ending grants put added pressure on local charities, shelters, places such as Project Home and others helping with the needs of those most in need. And who knows how much damage was done to how many.

But the state Supreme Court last June ruled that the legislation stopping grants was unconstitutional due to a legislative glitch. So grants were restored last fall.

People slowly started reapplying. The state Department of Human Services puts the current number at 5,913 -- more than half in Philly. And Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget proposal includes $50 million for the program.

The mess?

The Republican legislature seems interested in killing the grants again, either through legislation or during the budget process. The sponsor of a bill to do so, Rep. George Dunbar (R., Westmoreland), wrote in a memo to colleagues that keeping the program “would crowd out other important spending priorities.”

(I’m thinking like the $337 million to run the oversized, over-perked legislature.)

Four of the eight members of GOP House leadership are cosponsors of the bill.

So, Democrat Wolf is offering what his policy chief Meg Snead calls a “counterproposal”: roll the $50 million into a low-income housing program that has bipartisan support.

She says that would “preserve funding for a vulnerable population” that struggles with housing, and could provide help with housing-related issues, including transportation subsidies.

Couple things.

This is a deal based on politics, not principle. Get something (regardless of worth) rather than nothing (regardless of need).

Republicans can support a plan to expand housing since that means construction and since the construction industry gives to Republicans more than to Democrats. A lot more, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

So, such a deal serves politicians better than the people it impacts.

Advocates for general assistance (GA) argue a grants-to-housing swap simply takes benefits from one group of poor folks and gives them to another.

“It’ll certainly hurt people,” says Philadelphia Community Legal Services attorney Maria Pulzetti.

She cites a years-long waiting list for low-income housing in Philly: “We’re very concerned that ending GA leaves our clients without a means of paying for life’s necessities, including housing, but not limited to housing.”

State Sen. Vincent Hughes of Philadelphia, ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, also opposes the funds flip.

“I don’t think it’s the right direction to go,” he tells me.

He says not only should GA funds stay in place, they should be restored for the six years during which “they were unconstitutionally withheld.”

The Wolf administration claims support for GA but is convinced the GOP will cut the grants. “We’d like to see the program continue,” says Wolf press secretary J.J. Abbott, “but that’s not the reality we exist in.”

When I ask why not fight for the $50 million, an amount unlikely to be a game changer in negotiating a $34 billion budget, Abbott says the money is not the issue, it’s “the ideological differences” between Wolf and Republicans.

Spokespeople for House and Senate GOP leaders contend that no decision has been made regarding the grants, which they say will be part of negotiating a state budget by June 30.

But it sure seems as if we’re looking at an example of pragmatic politics. One that hurts people, unnecessarily, in the interest of government leaders -- and “other important spending priorities.”