In what advocates for the poor perceive as a puzzling irony, a Republican lawmaker from western Pennsylvania has embarked on a statewide tour to examine and discuss poverty.
Rep. Dave Reed of Indiana County, chairman of the House Majority Policy Committee, said it was time "to truly re-evaluate government's approach to fighting poverty," adding that "a discussion on poverty is long overdue."
All too often, Reed said, "Republicans fail to recognize poverty as a real issue. And Democrats think that throwing more money at issues solves problems."
Reed, 35, who is from a working-class background in Homer City, said he has empathy for the poor.
He added that he does not plan to pre-judge but to listen, then decide what to recommend to the legislature.
"Dave Reed's a really good guy and he's really sincere," said Joe Ostrander, communications director with the Community Action Association of Pennsylvania, which represents statewide poverty organizations. Reed tapped the association, along with several faith-based groups, to help with the tour, which will bring Reed to Philadelphia in September.
Reacting to news of the tour, antipoverty advocates and experts pointed to Republicans' history of cutting programs for the poor and expressed a collective "Huh?"
"We're so pleased that the people who have caused so much stress for the poor are now looking at the stress the poor are under," said Carol Goertzel, president and CEO of PathWays PA, a nonprofit advocacy group for women and children in Holmes. "It's totally ironic they're doing this."
Jonathan Stein, an attorney for Philadelphia's Community Legal Services and a leading antipoverty advocate, echoed Goertzel.
He suggested that Reed's "first order of business should be to see what the three years of the Corbett administration has done to worsen poverty in Pennsylvania."
Stein and others said that together and separately, the GOP-controlled legislature and the governor have greatly impacted programs affecting the poor by:
Instituting an asset test for food stamps said to cut down on waste, fraud, and abuse, but seen by advocates as punishment to any low-income person who had saved money.
Cutting the General Assistance program, designed to help the destitute.
Thwarting efforts to expand statewide Medicaid coverage.
Being unable to get food stamps, unemployment benefits, and energy assistance to qualified people in a timely manner.
Cutting money to education, which directly affects low-income children; and ending adultBasic health insurance, the state's subsidized insurance program for working people.
"I can't say they [Republicans] have worked with us to combat poverty," said Reed's legislative colleague, Kevin Boyle (D., Phila.), speaking recently on the Rick Smith radio program from Carlisle.
If Reed is perceptive, he will see the complexities of poverty throughout the state and not simply blame the poor for making "bad decisions," as many conservatives do, said Cathleen Palm, an expert on welfare and a statewide children's advocate.
Julie Zaebst, interim director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, said she had mixed feelings about Reed's plan.
"The legislature has dealt blow after blow to low-income people of Pennsylvania," she said. "Will Reed's work support or undermine these folks as they climb out of a recession?"