Lawmakers tend to headline their projects in handsome, inviting words. A “Green New Deal” just sells better than, say, a “Blueprint for Burdening Americans Over Dubious Science.” Likewise a “Rebuild America’s Schools Act” rings nicer than a “$100 Billion Extraconstitutional Reward for Educrats’ Taj Mahal Complex.” What explains doesn’t always entice.
But Pennsylvania’s General Assistance program is a rare public-sector example of truth in advertising. Its ho-hum title reveals little only because there is little to reveal. It sounds open-ended, catch-all, and ill-specified, and thus strikes the right note.
A few parameters technically apply regarding who can get this cash benefit of up to $205 to individuals ($316 to couples). Supporters suggest it targets largely worthy recipients such as drug-rehabilitation patients and domestic-abuse victims, though it contains a broad provision for temporary or permanent disability including loosely defined mental conditions such as depression.
Qualified participants are eligible for neither Social Security disability aid nor Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the principal national welfare program. The latter resulted from bipartisan reforms made in 1996 to a then more expansive federal-benefit system. If TANF didn’t meet the needs of the poor, Pennsylvania’s General Assistance could be said to have partly made up for federal close-fistedness. But what effect did a more sparing welfare program actually have on needy families nationwide?
“Children—in particular, those in single-mother families—are significantly less likely to be poor today than they were before welfare reform: child poverty overall fell between 1996 and 2014…,” concludes one study conducted 20 years after the 1996 law was enacted. “‘Deep poverty’—defined as having a family income below half the official poverty line—was probably as low in 2014 as it had been since at least 1979.… The idea that rolling back welfare reform would help the poor is wholly unjustified by the evidence and could reverse the gains among families with dependent children since 1996.”
That report’s author is Scott Winship, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute—formerly of the center-left Brookings Institution and before that a staffer at the far-left ACORN. Having gotten the proverbial “mugging by reality” by empirical evidence, he now criticizes his former allies on the left for predicting welfare reform would worsen the plight of the poor and for offering a crude more-is-better approach to social spending.
In 2012, the data-driven realism that changed Winship also changed policy in Pennsylvania. Legislation signed by Gov. Tom Corbett that year eliminated General Assistance and realized an annual savings of $150 million to taxpayers.
Last July, the State Supreme Court voided the 2012 law on procedural grounds and Gov. Tom Wolf’s Department of Human Services—surprising no one—resumed paying the benefits without any provision for them in the current budget.
To Sister Mary Scullion, executive director of the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Project HOME, reinstating General Assistance made sense for impoverished residents. “The restoration of General Assistance in Pennsylvania will help prevent homelessness for thousands of Pennsylvanians and is an essential safety net for the most vulnerable Pennsylvanians,” Scullion declared in a statement following the court ruling.
Pennsylvania’s experience during its six years without the program, however, belies her case. The state’s homeless population actually declined by 8.3 percent (14,736 to 13,512) during that time, as its overall population grew by 0.44 percent.
At this writing, the continuation of General Assistance depends on whether it’s funded in the next fiscal year’s budget, whose deadline is June 30th, and on what legislators do with a proposal by Rep. George Dunbar (R-Westmoreland) to end the program. Wolf has meanwhile assured pro-welfare demonstrators who gathered outside his house last week that he supports an appropriation for the cash benefits.
With much evidence that a leaner welfare state better serves both our poor and our taxpayers, Pennsylvania lawmakers should discontinue General Assistance and focus on enhancing the state’s economic climate.
Bradley Vasoli is president of Hill Media Strategies in Montgomery County, PA.