Rejection rate brings push to change welfare applying

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HARRISBURG -- A state senator is proposing changes to Pennsylvania's welfare assistance application process, after learning of the program's 75 percent rejection rate.

A number of advocacy groups have expressed concerns about a 2012 change in state law that extended the program's existing work search requirement to the period while an application for assistance is pending, which can be several weeks.

Rejection rates for the program have climbed since the change, but the state disputes that the work search change is the cause of more people being turned away. Last week, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that 75 percent of the applicants for cash assistance are turned down every month.

"Historically, that was a steady figure [at about 60 percent of applicants rejected monthly], and that's gone dramatically up in the last 18 months or so," said Louise Hayes, a supervising attorney at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, which advocates for benefit recipients.

Most applicants are rejected because they don't qualify for the program for a number of reasons, such as not having dependent children or earning too much income, said Kait Gillis, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Welfare.

Furthermore, applicants are often applying to multiple programs at one time, and a person whose welfare application is rejected could be qualifying for other public assistance, Ms. Gillis said.

She said the elimination of the state's general assistance program, which ended in July 2012 -- when the pre-application work search was implemented for welfare -- could be to blame for the increased rejection rate.

Ms. Gillis also pointed to statistics from February showing only 1.5 percent of applicants were rejected for failing to meet the pre-employment work search requirement.

Advocates say they aren't convinced.

"It's very hard to draw any conclusions from DPW's data, given the small percentage of cases for which they have rejection reason codes," Ms. Hayes said.

The number of Pennsylvanians receiving welfare assistance -- officially Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) -- is at its lowest number statewide since the program's inception in the 1990s when it was overhauled as part of a national welfare reform effort.

As of February, the most recent figures available, 188,015 Pennsylvanians were receiving the assistance.

Sen. LeAnna Washington, D-Philadelphia, earlier this week put out a memo seeking cosponsors for a bill to revert to the program's work search requirements prior to the 2012 change.

Ms. Washington said many years ago, she was a welfare recipient after fleeing a violent relationship, and used the program as a safety net to transition to independence.

"I'm a former welfare recipient, so I guess I kind of feel what people are going through," Ms. Washington stated.

"Many of my constituents have seen their financial and social safety nets disappear."

Ms. Washington is facing charges that she abused her legislative office for political purposes.

Sen. Pat Vance, R-Cumberland, who chairs the Senate's Public Health and Welfare Committee, could not be reached for comment on the proposal.

Kate Giammarise:, 1-717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.

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