The Human Cost of Eliminating General Assistance

Since the Great Depression, Pennsylvania has had a General Assistance (GA) program — a small cash benefit that serves as a bridge to self-sufficiency for the temporarily disabled and for victims of domestic violence and addicts seeking help to turn their lives around.

Since the Great Depression. Until this past weekend.

This year’s budget ended Pennsylvania’s modest benefit for 68,000 people, effective August 1. At $205 per month, nobody was getting rich from the program. Here is a sample of who is using General Assistance and why:

A disabled military veteran in Lancaster County, who applied for General Assistance to get him through until his Social Security disability benefits were approved.

A waitress in her 50s who was diagnosed with breast cancer and used General Assistance when she could not work as she was receiving chemotherapy and radiation treatment. After about nine months, she was able to return to work.

Good Samaritans who are caring for children not related to them — perhaps children of a close friend of neighbor. Many of these children are now likely to end up in the foster care system.

A very focused group of young women I saw at a recent rally in Delaware County, who chanted: “Pennsylvania, we need GA. We’re in treatment, we need to stay!”

A former addict whose recovery was aided by General Assistance who is now employed in a job that allows him to pay taxes, support his daughter, and help others struggling with addiction.

"I didn't need a couple days of rehab; I needed long-term care," recalled Jake Fleming, care manager for NorthEast Treatment Centers and a former addict. "General assistance saved my life."

The state ended the year with a $649 million surplus, more than enough to preserve the General Assistance program. Instead, the legislature chose to end the program, likely increasing the state’s overall spending as people facing very challenging life circumstances end up in emergency rooms, prisons, and inpatient mental health facilities. 

As the changes go into effect August 1, this promises to be a hard summer for tens of thousands of people.

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