What are we supposed to do with poor people?

With state lawmakers back in session to grapple with the budget, this question may not be asked literally, but it will inform the debate over whether Gov. Corbett is successful in getting big cuts he wants to social services.

Corbett wants to eliminate the general-assistance cash grant that goes to people who are unable to work. This $300 million program, which provides $180 monthly to eligible people like the poor, the temporarily disabled and the victims of domestic abuse, goes to 40,000 people in Philadelphia alone. Ultimately the federal government will reimburse much of the money, but Corbett still wants to eliminate it completely.

In addition, the overall social-service budget will be trimmed by 20 percent and money will come in the form of block grants that give counties more flexibility in how to spend it. But cuts to programs, advocates say, will be devastating, especially to the mentally ill and physically disabled.

When such cuts are proposed, the lines get drawn in predictable ways. The government cutters claim that there is fraud and abuse in these systems and that social-service spending is simply too big. On the other side, advocates for the poor make the case that society's most vulnerable will be hurt, with dire consequences to society as a whole.

Both are true, but neither argument addresses the larger question about what society's response should be to intractable poverty. It's a complex problem, but we've barely moved the conversation beyond how many dollars get earmarked this year vs. last year.

Simply slashing programs that help the vulnerable suggests an out-of-touch mind-set akin to Mitt Romney's suggestion that young people borrow $20,000 from their parents. And advocates' appeals rarely stray from the higher moral ground.

Isn't there a better, more productive direction to take this conversation? This should be a key challenge for Pennsylvania's cities — our city, especially, which has the lion's share of those in need. In fact, if cash grants are eliminated, $85 million in spending will be lost. (It's also worth pointing out that the cities, ours especially, is the economic engine for the state. In the major tax categories tracked by the state, the Philadelphia region contributes 30-40 percent of all tax revenues.)

The state has a lean budget. But it's a lot less lean, with reports from March pointing to a rise in revenue collection that's will cut the deficit from $719 million to $387 million. That could strengthen the argument for restoring some of the cuts, but by no means guarantees it, since the Corbett administration has also targeted big cuts in higher education, and those advocates will also be vocal for getting their cuts restored.

The arguments for higher education are easier to make, since the payoffs are clear. The arguments for the poor — for how much we help those who can't work or who are more vulnerable — are more difficult. We do know one thing: They will always be with us. Pretending that they're not, or that they just have to stop being lazy and get a good-paying job, is delusional.

We urge Harrisburg lawmakers to go beyond the usual fights over slicing the economic pie and grapple with finding a new balance between budgetary responsibility and social responsibility. n