HARRISBURG -- Faith-based and community aid organizations from across Pennsylvania have swung into action to urge the Republican-controlled Legislature not to end a Depression-era program that provides about $200 a month for tens of thousands of disabled adults who can't work.
The coalition of more than 100 groups, including the AARP, the United Way and Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, Unitarian Universalist and Jewish groups, released the letter advocating for the General Assistance cash benefit last week, as negotiations pick up on a state budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
"Our primary interest and concern is hunger, but hunger is just a symptom of other needs and challenges for people and so we see the elimination of General Assistance as majorly impacting people's ability to access shelter (and) food," the Rev. Amy Reumann, director of the Lutheran Advocacy Ministry in Pennsylvania, said Tuesday. "It's a small amount of money that's going to have a devastating effect for people who are on the margins and don't have other resources."
A spokesman for House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, said Tuesday that the chamber's Republican leadership had no plans to change the initial proposal by Gov. Tom Corbett to eliminate the program, and a spokesman for Corbett said the Republican had not changed his mind about eliminating it.
"It's unfortunate, but taken as a whole, it's a very small part of the public welfare budget," spokesman Kevin Harley said.
The Corbett administration repeatedly has said that the state's spending on programs for the poor is unsustainable and General Assistance is a target for elimination because federal mandates make it difficult to control spending on other programs for the poor.
In the letter, the groups say helping people who need money to pay for shelter, addiction recovery program fees and other basic needs until they get back on their feet saves society money by keeping people out of hospitals, jails and homeless shelters.
The benefit is a "hand-up, not a hand-out," the groups said.
"We urge you to ensure that our state budget reflects our values by restoring General Assistance in its entirety or, at minimum, to restore key components," the groups said. "General Assistance protects those most in need and saves taxpayers' money."
People who are eligible include disabled or sick adults who don't have minor children, domestic violence survivors, adults participating in intensive alcohol or drug treatment programs, children living with an unrelated adult and adults caring for someone who is sick or disabled, or for an unrelated child.
Currently, the House of Representatives is studying a budget plan sent to it earlier this month by the Senate.
Corbett, who ran on a no-new-taxes pledge, proposed ending the $150 million General Assistance cash benefit in a $27.1 billion budget plan he released in February that also would cut business taxes by $275 million. His spending plan called for a series of cutbacks he blamed largely on sluggish tax collections and the rising cost of pensions and health care for the poor.
Then senators voted 39-8 on May 9 for an alternative, $27.7 billion budget that also would eliminate the cash benefit while adding hundreds of millions of dollars to the subsidies that Corbett proposed for universities, public schools, county-run social services, the race horse industry, medical research, retailers that collect sales taxes and hospitals and nursing homes that care for the poor.
Senators also plugged in $12 million to erase cuts in the Legislature's accounts that Corbett proposed.