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July 31, 2014, 11:37 am

Advocates for poor propose alternate budget

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget — already assailed as an attack on public education — is also considered by some to be an attack on the poor.

After all, critics ask, how else to take a budget that will eliminate the $150 million General Assistance fund?

“It’s what came out of the governor’s budget. He hasn’t shared his thinking with me, but essentially, as of July 1, if the governor’s plan goes forward, 68,000 of the states’ poorest individuals will have no source of income,” said Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania Executive Director Liz Hersh. “And almost half of those people are in Philadelphia, and mostly, they are people with disabilities.”

Listed under the ominous heading “Human Services Reform” in Corbett’s proposed budget, the plan would allegedly save the commonwealth $319.3 million through the elimination of cash assistance benefits provided through the General Assistance Program. Corbett’s budget also calls for a revision of the Medical Assistance program by installing new minimum work requirements for medically needy recipients.

Corbett’s plan also calls for the state to save $59 million in costs related to service provider reimbursement reform, as well as generate $50 million in savings from a new automated system designed to identify and eliminate waste and fraud.

The governor’s budget also describes the formation of the Human Services Development Fund Grant, which lumps together seven programs — including Mental Health Services and the Homeless Assistance Program — while decreasing overall funding to the grant itself.

For example, the 2011 budget sent roughly $55 million to fund Mental Health Services; according to Corbett’s proposal, MHS would only receive $44 million. In fact, every program currently proposed for inclusion the Human Services Development Fund Block Grant would experience a drastic decrease in its funding.

Hersh intimated that these cuts will severely hinder the quality of life — even the very survival — of those who need help the most.

“Most [people needing the services] have drug addictions or mental health issues. For some people, it’s a bridge loan until they get approved for Social Security through the federal government,” Hersh said, noting that recipients were getting just a few hundred dollars a month, but that money was crucial to their very existence. “Victims of domestic violence [benefitted], helping them when they move out and don’t have money; the pattern of domestic violence includes the inability to get money.

“There’s also the ‘Good Samaritan’ provision,” Hersh continued. “Say the guy next door gets locked up, and the friend next door takes in his child so the child doesn’t end up in the system. They would usually get $200 a month for that.

“These will all be eliminated.”

Hersh and other like-minded organizers are fighting back. PA Cares For All — a large consortium composed of more than 100 local and statewide non-profit human services organizations — is creating a proposal to save the General Assistance fund — a plan that cost the state $42.1 million to operate. That would save the commonwealth roughly $107.9 million —considering the prior funding amount of the General Assistance program. The other way to look at it is that this plan would cost the state an extra $42.1 million, since Corbett plans on doing away with the program entirely.

Either way, this plan — supported by AARP Pennsylvania, the United Way of Pennsylvania and almost every service providing organization in the state — comes to these savings by way of altering several stipulations in the legislation, including how people are categorized.

“We got involved because people use this money for basic living expenses, like boarding houses and expenses for rooms they share. Given all that, our experience is when this kind of program is eliminated, some percentage of people will end up on the street,” said Hersh, noting that a woman in Michigan died in 1991 when similar cuts were made there. “We’ve actually had a downturn in the number of people who are homeless, but on June 30, they are closing the Ridge Avenue shelter, which will become a restaurant.

“This whole feeding [the homeless] ban as well. So suddenly, instead of a problem we’ve made some progress on, Philadelphia is now going to be faced with a situation where we are going to have more homeless.”

Some elected officials may have gotten the message. Hersh said state Rep. Thomas P. Murt submitted a compromise that contained much of the language in the counterproposal, but much more work needs to be done, especially if Pennsylvania wants to avoid Michigan’s fate.

“So the question becomes, are the governor and legislators listening to the voters,” Hersh said. “This is really sad, because I think the people of Pennsylvania want there to be a safety net, and that Pennsylvania is compassionate.

“We need a safety net for the very poor among us and give them an opportunity to rebuild their lives.”

 

Contact staff writer Damon C. Williams at (215) 893-5745 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .