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Lawsuit Challenging End Of Small Cash Payments To Poorest Pennsylvanians In Commonwealth Court Today

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Kevin McCorry
/
WHYY
Pennsylvania's Capitol Building in Harrisburg. In 2019, lawmakers ended an assistance program for the poorest Pennsylvanians.

A case before Commonwealth Court today challenges the end of a cash assistance program for the poorest Pennsylvanians.

State lawmakers ended the General Assistance program in 2019 as part of the state budget agreed to by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled legislature.

Before it ended, General Assistance provided about $200-per-month to about 12,000 people.

Those who received the aid said they used it to buy things like soap or toilet paper, or to cover the cost of bus fare, or medical co-pays. Recipients were without any other income, as they were often awaiting a determination on federal disability assistance, or were fleeing domestic violence, or living in homeless shelters.

While the amount of money provided to beneficiaries monthly was small, it was significant, said Maria Pulzetti, supervising attorney at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.

“It’s the difference often between homelessness and not homelessness, or the difference between staying with an abusive partner or being able to go off on one’s own. It’s a very crucial benefit for our clients,” said Pulzetti, the attorney representing the plaintiffs in the case.

The lawsuit argues the method legislators used to repeal the program was unconstitutional, by combining the bill eliminating the program with other budget-related legislation that had to do with hospital taxes and nursing home funding.

The case was brought by attorneys at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia and Disability Rights Pennsylvania, on behalf of three Philadelphia women, against the state’s Department of Human Services.

A DHS spokesperson said that agency does not comment on pending litigation, but also urged Pennsylvanians in need to apply for other kinds of assistance at www.compass.state.pa.us.

This is the second time legislative attempts to eliminate General Assistance have ended up in court. It was previously terminated by legislators and former Gov. Tom Corbett in 2012; the Supreme Court in 2018 said lawmakers had used unconstitutional methods to end the program.     

When the program ended the first time, it led to people losing housing. It also led to a loss of  “access to critical human services” such as medical care or substance abuse treatment. That’s because without cash they couldn’t afford to ride the bus or cover co-pays, wrote Marc Cherna, director of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, in an affidavit filed with the litigation.

Only about half of states provide such a program to poor adults without children, according to a recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.