Every columnist learns there are times when reader responses come in crazy.
Goes with the territory. Can even be instructive.
But there also are times when readers’ words are worth sharing.
Such a time arrived last week in a voicemail from 80-year-old Larry Jackson of Elkins Park.
When I called him back, he told me he was raised in poverty in South Philly’s Grays Ferry neighborhood, made mistakes in his youth, but put himself through college, taught at Martin Luther King High School and was a real estate broker for 40 years before retiring.
With his permission, I’m sharing his voicemail message.
It was in response to a column about Republicans in Harrisburg intent on ending General Assistance cash grants of $200 a month to 11,000 people statewide, most of whom are disabled and can’t work.
The money helps with housing, transportation to medical appointments, and personal necessities, allowing some level of dignity and independence for those who don’t qualify for traditional welfare.
It’s been part of the state’s safety net for most of the last 50 years.
The GOP-run House last week voted to kill it. The GOP Senate is expected to do so this week. It’s unclear what Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf will do.
I’ve argued the program should be saved. I found Jackson’s argument better than mine.
In a strong, confident, impassioned voice, he left me this message:
“These people at the very bottom of the bottom of life can use $200. It’s like $2 million to them at any moment in time.
“And for other people who throw away so much money on so many programs to vote against this is unbelievable. It’s unbelievable to me.
“One day, we’ll realize that just because, by accident of birth, you are penniless and poverty-stricken, that doesn’t mean you are a throwaway. That you don’t still having meaning, or you don’t still need help.
“We treat our dogs and pets better than we do the people at the bottom of the totem pole. That is a terrible morality.
“I hope that this touches your heart. Because it should.”
I’ve called the GOP action what it is: shameful, cruel, inhumane, an ugly play to a political base stereotyping those on public assistance as black, lazy, and likely to abuse tax dollars.
Of course, that’s not said directly. What’s said is there’s fraud and waste that must end. There are jobs out there for those willing to work. And we must be accountable for taxpayer money.
So, kill the program. It’s cost ($13 million in the current fiscal year, $24 million for the next, less than 1 percent of the state budget) takes money away from priorities.
Let’s think about this “reasoning.”
On fraud: Because government maybe doesn’t run a program as tightly as it should and some people scam it, don’t fix the program, end it and deprive all who legally benefit from it.
Babies and bathwater come to mind.
On jobs: More than 90 percent of GA recipients are temporarily or permanently disabled. Most can’t work. This is not about jobs. Yet Republicans say, as GOP House Leader Bryan Cutler did during a House debate last week, “There are more job openings than people right now.”
Dog whistles come to mind.
On accountability: If lawmakers want accountability, they should require receipts for their own tax-deductible per diem expenses of up to $189 a day. As is, they don’t. Where’s that accountability? Only the poor should be accountable?
Hypocrisy comes to mind.
There are other arguments:
We spend billions on human services. (For which these GA folks mostly don’t qualify.)
When the program was ended for six years before being restored by court order, Democrats didn’t seek legislation to bring it back. (Because it was in litigation.)
We have limited resources. (There’s a $200 million surplus. And the largest “full-time” legislature in America, this year cost taxpayers $340 million.)
What gets lost here is a reality of need beyond partisan ideology and stereotypes. One being met with coldhearted legislation cloaked in bogus accountability.
I say coldhearted because during House debate, longtime Lancaster Democratic Rep. Mike Sturla referred to the Republican stance as “coldhearted” and GOP House Speaker Mike Turzai took offense.
“The phrase `coldhearted,’” Turzai said, “is stricken from the record.”