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State Welfare Enrollment Is Down, Despite Increased Need For Pennsylvanians

greater_pittsburgh_community_food_bank_assistance_nutrition_coronavirus_-_gene_j_puskar.jpg
Gene J. Puskar
/
AP
Cars line up to recieve food at a Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank distribution during the pandemic.

On today's program: Reporter Kate Giammarise explains why fewer people are receiving welfare from the state, despite the pandemic’s ongoing economic impact; Two students from Brashear High School talk about what it’s like to finish senior year learning from home; and after November’s election, voting reform is expected to be at the top of lawmakers’ agendas this year.

More people are in need of assistance, so why is state welfare enrollment down?

(0:00 — 5:15) 

It’s been a year since the first case of COVID-19 was discovered in the U.S. The novel virus upended almost every aspect of daily life, notably forcing many to rely on government support to stay housed, get healthcare and put food on the table. 

But despite this increase in needs, Pennsylvania saw a decrease in enrollment in the state’s welfare program

90.5 WESA reporter Kate Giammarise says enrollment in the state’s welfare program, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) dropped by 15,000 people between March and November of last year. 

“As of November, which are the most recent numbers we have, there were fewer than 79,000 [enrolled],” says Giammarise.

However, in the same time period, Pennsylvania’s enrollment in Medicaid increased by more than 10%, and enrollment in food stamps increased by more than 5%. 

Some advocates told Giammarise the state’s requirements for enrolling in welfare are too restrictive: One must have minor children and less than $1,000 in assets.

“So, if you are employed at all or collecting unemployment, you would not qualify for this program,” says Giammarise. She adds one would get about $400 a month for a family of three on TANF. 

“Overall, the advocates I spoke to made the point that, if we’re trying to help needy families, then during this time when there are more people in need but the program is helping fewer people, something is wrong,” says Giammarise. “The program is not working.”

Giammarise says some lawmakers want to make improvements on the horizon, but they’re aimed at the employment at job training aspects of the program, not the financial assistance.

Two high school seniors on what they’re missing out on in a pandemic
(5:22 — 14:37)

Pittsburgh Public Schools is considering a resolution to postpone in-person learning until April, after Spring Break. The board will vote whether to make this change next week. Previously, the district hoped to phase some students back to the classroom on February 8, with teachers returning February 1.

Most students in the Pittsburgh region have been attending school from home since March of last year. For high school students, that means missing out on important milestones, or experiencing them virtually, instead of with  friends and teachers.

So how do some of those students feel about the potential for finishing another year online? 

Chelsea Perello, 18, is a senior at Brashear High School. She says the constant moving of goal posts is tiring. 

“Just like junior year, they kept saying, two weeks, and then another two weeks, to a couple months to not going back. I just feel like they’re gonna keep pushing it back,” says Perello. “I just want to graduate and move on.”

Perello says she’s gotten used to learning from home, but she knows not all of her peers have had as easy of a transition.

Madison Young, 17, says it’s been hard to not be physically in the classroom with teachers to get immediate assistance. 

“I’ve recently become very vocal about my depression and anxiety and a lot of it has become a lot worse because of the pandemic and staying in the house and not seeing all of my friends in school,” says Young.  

She says it’s also made it harder to make college preparations with school counselors.  

“In usual years, they’ll come into your classroom and like, ask you about things,” says Young. “But instead, I have to remember to email them and not have that firsthand help on applications.” 

Both Young and Perello plan to attend college, but are still also working out details. 

Young says her dream school is the University of Southern California, but she doesn’t know yet if school will be remote, and if it will be worth moving or enrolling without being in person with professors. 

Perello says she’s been trying to attend campus tours with her schools of choice, but they keep getting cancelled or rescheduled. The pandemic, they say, is making it harder to come to a decision. 

“I feel like I’m missing out on my high school experience,” says Perello. “We have this thing at Brashear where we put our hand up on the wall with paint and like a little quote, and I don’t think we’re getting to do that this year like every other senior did last year.”

“Whenever we left junior year, I was very unsatisfied. It kind of feels like all of our hard work was for nothing in a way,” says Young. “I’m not entirely upset about [the board’s] decisions, but personally, it’s just sad to not have what I was expecting whenever I went to Brashear freshman year.”

Voting reforms on the state legislature’s agenda
(14:42 — 18:00)

Given the upheaval in the 2020 election cycle, voting reforms are expected to be at the top of state lawmakers’ agenda this year.

WITF’s Emily Previti reports, stakeholders worry the partisan gridlock that prevented changes before the last election will be even harder to overcome in 2021.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

Kevin Gavin is the host of WESA's news interview program "The Confluence." He is a native Pittsburgher and served as news director for 90.5 WDUQ for 34 years. Since the sale of the radio station by Duquesne University to Pittsburgh EPM, Inc. (now Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corp.), he served as Executive Producer of Special News Projects prior to being named as host of "The Confluence" five years ago. kgavin@wesa.fm
Marylee is the editor/producer of The Confluence, the daily public affairs show on WESA. She got her start in journalism at The Daily Reveille and KLSU while attending Louisiana State University. She took her passion for audio journalism to UC Berkeley's graduate program and worked in public radio at WPR in Madison, WI, and WOSU in Columbus, Ohio.
Laura Tsutsui is a producer for The Confluence, WESA's morning news show. Previously, she reported on the San Joaquin Valley with the NPR affiliate station in her hometown of Fresno, California. She can be reached at ltsutsui@wesa.fm.
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Isabelle is a student at George Washington University studying Political Communication. She loves all things Pittsburgh sports and serves as a sports anchor for GW-TV. In her free time, she enjoys museum hopping and walking her dog, Stevie.
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