Charges of hypocrisy rarely hit their intended targets — mainly because hypocrites are blind to their own role in irony or injustice.
The elected state lawmakers who voted last month to eliminate a general assistance program that helped the most desperate and needy of people in the state have this blindness. Currently, about 10,000 people get grants of $200 per month — $2,400 per year — to help cover basic needs.
This has been a popular target; general assistance was eliminated in 2012 but the Supreme Court found it unconstitutional. At that time, the program served 60,000 of the neediest Pennsylvanians.
The issue went viral last month when, during a hearing on the topic, State Senator Katie Muth tried to read a letter from John Boyd, a general assistance recipient, explaining what a huge difference this small amount of money made to his life. Muth’s reading was shouted down by Republican Majority Leader Jake Corman. The exchange generated outraged attention by presidential candidates and other national figures.
Corman has called the general assistance program flawed because of the lack of monitoring of how the money is spent by participants.
Like many of his colleagues in the General Assembly, Corman is a recipient of a generous public welfare program that gives lawmakers who live outside a 50-mile radius of Harrisburg an allowance of about $187 per day to cover food, lodging, dry cleaning, and other incidentals not covered by their $88,610 base salaries. The allowance doesn’t require receipts. No questions asked. No monitoring of how the money is spent. No chance at all for fraud, waste, or abuse.
In 2015, Corman collected $9,861 in per diems, and about half that in 2016. In all, taxpayers spent $2.5 million on per diems, covering about 250 legislators. According to a report by pennlive.com, a top recipient was Pat Browne, who collected $23,574 in 2016. (Per diems are based on the number of days spent in Harrisburg, and vary with each lawmaker.)
The $24 million budget for general assistance covers about 10,000 recipients, the majority of whom have disabilities and are unable to work. Some are waiting for rulings on Social Security disability payments. In those cases, the money they get from general assistance is ultimately reimbursed.
Gov. Tom Wolf, who did not veto the general assistance bill, has earmarked $15 million in his budget for affordable housing. While well-meaning, that doesn’t buy bus fare for someone trying to get to a medical or drug treatment appointment. While this assistance is called “general,” it’s very specific in the population it serves — people who need urgent assistance like the disabled, or those in drug or alcohol treatment.
It is also a temporary program. According to an analysis by the Pennsylvania Health Access Network and Community Legal Services, 63 percent of recipients received the benefit for less than one year — unlike those other welfare recipients, our state lawmakers, who reap the benefits of per diems every year they are in office. Outraged voters should make sure those years are severely curtailed.