Of Harrisburg’s push to punish the poor | John Baer
Pennsylvania's legislature seems intent on ending a small grant program aimed at helping the state's most vulnerable. It's the second time a Republican majority is seeking to kill the program.
Todd Reeves lives in West Philly’s Cobbs Creek neighborhood in the house where he grew up. These days, he’s paying attention to Harrisburg lawmakers – even if they don’t pay attention to him.
He’s among thousands of Pennsylvanians reliant on a small grant program designed to provide aid and dignity to those most in need.
The Republican-run legislature is poised to kill it. I mean poised to kill it again.
A GOP-run legislature killed it in 2012. But the state Supreme Court last summer overturned that action on a technicality, and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf reinstated grants last fall.
Reeves, 51, is among the grateful.
He lives alone, unmarried and unemployed. He has no siblings. He spent the last two decades caring for aging parents. His father, who had Alzheimer’s, died in 2012. His mother died in 2018.
Much of Reeves’s left leg was amputated last March due to complications from diabetes.
Since then, he wheelchairs himself to frequent medical appointments for diabetes, and heart and kidney issues, while dealing with snags as he seeks Social Security disability benefits, a process that can take months or years.
So, in January, Reeves started getting $204 a month from the state, which he uses for personal items such as toilet paper and deodorant, and to help pay utilities so he can stay in his home of a half-century.
He gets food stamps and Medicaid. But without the grants, he says, “I’m looking at zero income, not being able to pay bills and possibly losing my house.”
The grant program is a sliver of the state’s $33 billion budget and aimed at a limited class of recipients.
Qualifiers, who include military veterans, are almost all single adults without children, who are temporarily or permanently disabled, in rehab for addiction, or displaced domestic violence victims. Folks with no income who cannot work.
Since Wolf reinstated grants, about 6,000 Pennsylvanians reapplied, more than half in Philly. The money helps with housing, laundry, transportation, personal necessities.
These grants have been part of the state safety net since 1967, except for 2012 to 2018. A lot of the money is reimbursed to the state by the feds once Social Security benefits kick in. In 2011, the last full year of the program, reimbursement totaled $26 million, according to Philadelphia Community Legal Services.
And yet, in what can only be regarded as hard-hearted, dog-whistled stereotyping of poor people (and let’s be honest here, people of color), House Republicans are plowing a path to punish the state’s most vulnerable.
It’s a case of closed-minded ideology.
Last week, on party-line votes, Republicans rammed legislation through the House Health Committee to end the grants, then voted down efforts on the House floor to save them.
How blindly partisan is this? Every Republican voting did so against the program. Every Democrat voting supported it. A final House vote is expected soon.
Rep. Dan Frankel (D., Allegheny), Health Committee minority chairman, says the bill was pushed without a single hearing despite opposition from “over 100 stakeholders,” including community advocates and several faith-based groups.
“It’s an unfortunate way to legislate,” says Frankel. “It seems mean-spirited. This is really a critical lifeline.”
GOP arguments include:
There are other “priorities.”
Wolf didn’t consult lawmakers before restarting grants. (In fact, Wolf asked for $17 million in supplemental funds for this fiscal year and $50 million for the coming year.)
Democrats didn’t seek reinstatement while the program was inactive. (The issue was in litigation.)
And the ever-popular: The money gets used to buy drugs, booze and cigarettes.
Rep. Stan Saylor (R., York) called it “the most abused, corrupt program this state has ever had.”
Maybe he meant except for the legislature, with its parade of felons, outsize perks, pensions, health care and pay raises, its own $340 million annual cost and its partiality for special interest-oriented policy.
Freshman Philly Democratic Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, during floor debate, noted, "The needs of those who are well-off and well-connected are prioritized, often at the expense of those who cannot afford to have a lobbyist come to our offices. … That’s not why I ran!”
Kenyatta says ending grants is “wrong from a moral perspective and shortsighted from an economic perspective.”
Loss of the grants again for use while awaiting reimbursable federal benefits forces additional reliance on homeless shelters, local charities, and costlier social services.
Still, lawmakers seek that loss, through legislation or the budget process.
They’re not in session this week. (I’m pretty sure April Fools’ Day is a legislative holiday; aptly so.) But the kill bill could be voted when the House returns April 8.
“My hope,” says Kenyatta, “is public pressure forces them to not take what would be a really bad vote.”
Otherwise, Todd Reeves, thousands of others who are struggling, and every Pennsylvanian, gets to see how Harrisburg treats the indigent, as opposed to how it treats itself.