Things often don’t go right for Jenese McKinley.
Learning-disabled, unable to hold a job, frequently homeless, and the victim of street violence, the 38-year-old from Northeast Philadelphia has lived with a litany of sorrows and indignities.
Now comes one more.
McKinley, like 11,000 other Pennsylvanians, received a letter this week from the state Department of Human Services stating, “Pennsylvania law has changed. The General Assistance program will end on Aug. 1, 2019.”
The $205-a-month stipend that McKinley depended on to survive will disappear, and she’s panicked about learning what life will feel like yet another rung lower on the ladder.
“This sucks,” said the 1999 graduate of Abraham Lincoln High School in Mayfair. She currently lives in an apartment in Fairmount owned by the nonprofit Project HOME. "The letter was so upsetting. I can’t believe this is happening. How will I afford bus fare to my doctor, or buy laundry detergent?
"It’s ridiculous, everybody being cut. What are people going to do now?”
The $40 million Pennsylvania General Assistance program has essentially been cash welfare for people without minor children. It serves mostly disabled adults who have no income and can’t work. It also helps displaced victims of domestic violence, as well as those seeking addiction treatment.
While recipients have been learning their fate this week — including 5,600 low-income residents who receive the stipend in Philadelphia — many people around the country knew of the program’s end thanks to a viral video of a chaotic Pennsylvania Senate floor fight in June.
Debate on the Republican drive to kill General Assistance boiled over as senators shouted and traded accusations, and Democrats walked out in protest.
The program, which began in 1936, had been eliminated in 2012, but the state Supreme Court reversed that move last summer. Gov. Tom Wolf reinstated it soon after, only to have it ended by Republicans in the state legislature.
Many describe it as a bridge for adults awaiting approval of Social Security disability income benefits. Nearly two-thirds of GA recipients received the stipend for less than a year, according to an analysis by both the Pennsylvania Health Access Network and Community Legal Services. Advocates say that when people do receive SSI, the state can recoup the GA money recipients accrued.
Republicans were able to tuck the program’s elimination into this year’s budget bill that provided Medicaid money to Philadelphia hospitals, making it difficult for Wolf to veto the legislation, advocates say. The governor later explained, “I’m sorry that that was the bad choice I have to make.”
Wolf went on to point out that he was able to secure an additional $15 million for low-income housing assistance.
Republicans have fostered enmity toward General Assistance for years.
An auditor general’s report in 2008 is the basis for the current antipathy, said Jennifer Kocher, communications director for the office of Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre).
“We initially eliminated this program based on the report, by a Democrat, which reported waste and abuse in the cash program,” Kocher said. “The concerns about this program have never been refuted.”
That’s untrue, said Sister Mary Scullion, executive director of Project HOME. “I’m not aware of any abuse or waste of General Assistance money,” she said. "That $205 a month people get is so basic for a single person to live on, and that’s a dinner out for some of these legislators.
“It’s cold-hearted that they would cut this program. People are so upset by this. It only pushes people down and furthers growing income inequality in our state.”