HARRISBURG -- A Republican state representative is on a mission to learn more about poverty in Pennsylvania, despite skepticism from within his own party, Democrats and some advocates of the poor.
"Contrary to popular opinion, poverty is not confined to one region of the state. And it is not confined to one demographic," said Rep. Dave Reed, R-Indiana, announcing his initiative last month in the Capitol.
Mr. Reed, who chairs the GOP-controlled House Majority Policy Committee, said he aims to assess government's role in fighting poverty, and intends to cross the state to learn what poverty looks like in urban, suburban and rural settings.
He'll be in Pittsburgh this month.
Mr. Reed will have to battle the perception that his party has a harsher approach when dealing with the poor: Republican Gov. Tom Corbett's administration has cut funding for adultBasic, a health care program for low-income Pennsylvanians; has instituted an asset test for anyone applying for food stamp benefits; has cut funding for human services statewide by 10 percent; and has been reluctant to expand Medicaid, which would benefit low-income adults.
Mr. Reed was behind a package of eight bills -- titled "WelFAIR" and introduced in 2011 -- that aimed to cross-reference welfare applicants through 19 different databases to confirm eligibility, enact photo identification cards, strengthen penalties for fraud and turn a program that aimed to help people transition from welfare to work into a loan recipients would have to pay back.
He promoted the legislation as aimed at weeding out fraud, but critics at the time said it would further stigmatize people receiving public assistance and create unnecessary barriers in an already complex application process.
A spokesman for House Democrats said while any examination of poverty and its causes is welcome, Mr. Reed "should take a hard look at the policies pushed by the governor that have cut money to schools, human services and health care," said Bill Patton, a spokesman for the Democratic caucus.
While there is skepticism in some circles about Mr. Reed's motives, two Republicans known for championing human services issues say they believe he is sincere.
"I accept it at face value that Rep. Reed is genuinely and sincerely interested in finding out more about the causes of poverty in the commonwealth," said Rep. Tom Murt, R-Montgomery.
Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-Bucks, said he hopes Mr. Reed examines the merits of expanding Medicaid, an issue Mr. DiGirolamo has championed.
"This goes to exactly the population that they're looking at -- the working poor," he said.
Added Mr. Murt, "The Republican caucus and the Republican Party is not devoid of compassion for the less fortunate."
Mr. Reed has taken some heat from within his party for examining the issue, however, as conservative Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, assailed Mr. Reed in an intracaucus email exchange reported by Capitolwire, an online news service.
Mr. Reed responded: "As an individual who started his life in a trailer park, watched his family face unemployment several times as a child and has personally stood in line at a food pantry in an elementary school: I firmly believe that both parties are lacking in this discussion -- especially at the national level. I was lucky, I had two very caring and hard-working parents who with just a little bit of help were able to pick our family up and get us moving forward -- all are not that lucky."
Among the suggestions Mr. Reed has received thus far: ensuring that low-income people have access to higher education, and ensuring that child-care subsidies are available for poor people who work, said Louise Hayes, a supervising attorney at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.
Ms. Hayes was part of a group of advocates for the poor who met recently with Mr. Reed's staff.
"They're listening and open to all sorts of ideas," she said.
The poverty rate in Pennsylvania remains below the national rate of 15.9 percent, but rose during the recent recession, from 11.6 percent in 2007 to 13.8 percent in 2011, according to census data and information from the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a liberal policy group. For a family of four, the poverty line is at $23,550.
While Philadelphia County has the highest percentage of its population living in poverty (27 percent), the state has a number of rural counties with high poverty rates, such as Fayette (19.7 percent), Indiana (18.2 percent) and Forest (22 percent), according to 2011 census data.
Suburban counties aren't exempt either. Both Bucks and Montgomery counties saw the number of residents participating in the food stamp program double from 2007 to 2012, according to a report from the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.
Mr. Reed's focus on poverty is "both genuine and politically smart," said Sharon Ward, executive director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.
His approach can help soften "the image of the Republican party, which many see as indifferent to the needs of working people and the poor."
Kate Giammarise: email@example.com, 1-717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.