Friday, February 1, 2019

It’s long past time to treat poor Pennsylvanians with the dignity they deserve

COMMENTARY - Opinion in the Philadelphia Inquirer by
Vincent Hughes and Gregory Holston
January 31, 2019 - 5:00 AM

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” Unfortunately, Pennsylvania’s public policy too often sacrifices an ideology of human decency to the detriment of our most vulnerable citizens.

Last summer, a glimmer of hope was provided to Pennsylvania’s low-income and disabled populations when the state Supreme Court overruled the 2012 budget decision that eliminated the General Assistance program, which had been adopted by then-Gov. Tom Corbett and the Republican controlled legislature. That budget decision eliminated the General Assistance program in order to balance the 2012-13 budget. The General Assistance program provided about $205 per month in supplemental assistance to 62,000 low-income adults for an average of six months. This “fiscally responsible” decision brought a cost savings of $150 million in a $27.7 billion budget, pleasing a Republican party which continuously balances budgets on the backs of people most in need.

The folks who felt this hardhearted attack were temporarily or permanently disabled people, abuse victims, sons and daughters recovering from addictions – those suffering and in need of help. This relatively small amount of assistance was a lifeline to the 62,000 people who used the program because they were temporarily incapable of working due to their life situation.
The help they received was temporary in nature but monumental in its impact. We dare say it may have been lifesaving.

Cutting off this program was especially egregious when you understand the context: that very same year, Corbett and the Republican-controlled legislature cut business taxes and refused to impose a reasonable tax on Marcellus Shale drillers. The poor got poorer and the rich got richer, yet again.

When the Pennsylvania Supreme Court last July ruled Corbett and the Republicans unconstitutionally ended the General Assistance program, the path cleared for the General Assembly and the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf to right this six-year-old wrong, by reversing the decision to inflict pain on our most vulnerable to generate one half of one percent in budget savings.

To his credit, Gov. Wolf immediately reopened the General Assistance program and began providing a lifeline to thousands of Pennsylvania citizens in need.

We should also be making an aggressive attempt to locate those individuals who were cut off the from General Assistance program back in 2012, with the intent of getting them the support that was unconstitutionally taken away. If something was illegally and unconstitutionally taken from anyone of us, we would naturally seek full redress. That logic should be the same for these citizens.

Recently, the Wolf administration unveiled its proposal to redirect funding for the General Assistance program to address the commonwealth’s housing needs. While the goal of providing affordable housing is laudable and one we strongly support, redirecting funding from the General Assistance program raises serious concerns. Yes, these individuals need housing, but they also need the $208 they receive monthly under General Assistance to cover their basic needs. Moreover, they need the money that is rightfully due to them because of the unconstitutional actions of the Corbett administration and the Republican General Assembly.

Wolf’s commitment to our most vulnerable citizens is evident in the compassionate policies he has promoted throughout his first term. But, while we usually agree on most policy issues, this proposal raises serious questions for us and many other stakeholders. We propose a simple solution: Continue the General Assistance program that was unconstitutionally taken away from Pennsylvania’s most deserving citizens, pay folks what they are owed, and fund the affordable housing initiative that is so desperately needed. Right the moral wrong that occurred six years ago and take a new path on battling an impending housing crisis. It’s the right thing to do.

As the budget conversation unfolds, we must look at not only these issues but the general issue of poverty and deep poverty in Pennsylvania. I know the governor is committed to addressing these issues in his second term. There are no easy solutions. With this upcoming budget, Governor Wolf and the General Assembly have an opportunity to make a bold statement about how, in the words of Gandhi, our commonwealth will be measured as a society. We should take it.

Vincent J. Hughes is a member of the Pennsylvania State Senate, representing the 7th District since 1994. Rev. Gregory Holston, Executive Director of Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild (POWER)