Pennsylvania General Assistance program ends today

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HARRISBURG -- With Gerald Ragin's state cash assistance set to end today, the 46-year-old McKeesport resident will be spending the day with a caseworker, filling out an application for federal disability benefits.

Welfare advocates say that he may be waiting a long time for help, because his main option for replacing his monthly state General Assistance checks could take at least a year to enroll.

In the meantime, he and 61,000 other Pennsylvanians will no longer receive approximately $200 in monthly benefits due to state budget cuts.

Those who qualified for aid through the General Assistance program included disabled or sick unemployed adults without dependent children, domestic violence survivors and adults participating in drug and alcohol treatment programs.

The majority of those affected are single, childless male adults, according to Department of Public Welfare spokeswoman Carey Miller. State officials have not tracked whether those individuals have found sources of income to replace their state stipends.

Cindy Berger, a disability attorney in Pittsburgh, said those previously on General Assistance are out of luck because of the limited transition time period given to program beneficiaries.

The program was eliminated at the end of June, with a one-month extension for recipients to look for replacement income.

"How is someone who is unable to work going to find another source of income in a month?" Ms. Berger said. "The Department of Public Welfare and the governor pointed to Social Security as an alternative, but that's not really an answer because in the meantime while you wait for your application to go through, what are you supposed to do?"

Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, said Democratic lawmakers fought for the extension.

"Clearly 30 days was insufficient to help these people and put them in a better situation," Mr. Hughes said. "Gary Alexander, the secretary of public welfare, testified specifically about finding jobs for people, but there hasn't been an aggressive job creation program. The state needed to save money, and this was their vehicle."

Ending the program will save the state $149 million this year. Ms. Miller said the department had to close the program to meet this year's budget appropriation.

"The majority of the department's programs are federally funded and constricted by federal mandates," Ms. Miller said. The General Assistance program received only state funds.

General Assistance medical benefits, unlike the cash program, were not cut. Approximately 47,000 Pennsylvanians will continue receiving such assistance, Ms. Miller said.

For those like Mr. Ragin who cannot or have yet to find a replacement source of aid, the cut may mean lack of a doctor's care or becoming homeless.

"I got to scramble, trying to figure out how to get to my doctor's appointments. I don't have the cash to do it," said Mr. Ragin, who last month told the Post-Gazette he could not make ends meet without the state checks.

"They don't let me work because of my mental capacity. I'm diagnosed with ADHD, my memory's real bad, I got depression ... they're changing my medication again, but I'm screwed," he said.

Ms. Miller said county caseworkers can help individuals identify other programs for which they may qualify.

But Mr. Ragin, who has been receiving cash and medical assistance through the General Assistance program since last August or September, won't know for months whether he qualifies for Social Security disability benefits. Rochelle Jackson, a caseworker at Just Harvest in Pittsburgh who has worked with Mr. Ragin, said his situation is common. General Assistance helped individuals who could not qualify for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a welfare program providing temporary funds for families looking for work, she said.

Most of the 61,000 people losing their General Assistance funds will not be able to receive aid through programs other than Social Security disability, which requires a wait of one to three years, Ms. Jackson said.

Applications for disability benefits take between three and five months to process.

"In the meantime, their ability to find a job is very difficult because of their mental or physical capacity," Ms. Jackson said. "Few people can roll over to TANF if they're caring for a child under the age of 18, and the blind can get other funds, too, but everyone else has to work or wait."


Clara Ritger is an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association.


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