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Pennsylvania Joins States Yanking Safety Net for Disabled

Pennsylvania will end $200 monthly general-assistance payments to residents who are poor, disabled and unemployable, joining eight states that have eliminated or curbed such aid since last year.

About 61,000 Pennsylvanians will no longer get those checks as of Aug. 1 under the budget that passed the Republican-led Legislature last week. The cut will save $150 million, according to Carey Miller, a Welfare Department spokeswoman. The agency oversees the program that mainly benefits childless adults.

Kansas, also dominated by Republicans, joined Illinois in ending general assistance last year, said Liz Schott, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit organization in Washington. Maine imposed new curbs on the payments this year, she said. The benefits serve people who don’t receive “a lot of legislative support” while programs for the young and old do, she said.

“Because this is all state dollars, and not a very popular population, it tends to be one of the places where states look to make cuts,” Schott said yesterday by telephone. “States are looking to save money.”

Rose Slater, 61, said she can’t think about what she will do in August, when the $200 checks she’s received from general assistance will end. She doesn’t want to be overwhelmed because she’s already dealing with a crisis: Her $550 rent payment for July is due today, and she’s $150 short, Slater said by telephone from her apartment in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia.

What to Sell

Slater started receiving general assistance in March, when her $800 a month in unemployment benefits expired. She said she has struggled to find employment as a social worker over the past two years and that she hopes her landlord will let her pay the rent by the end of the week without penalties.

“I’m going to go through my house and see what I could sell,” said Slater, who suffers from gout and vision problems. “You have to have faith. If I didn’t, I’ll fall apart.”

The end of cash assistance in Illinois cut off aid to 10,000 Chicagoans, according to a report Schott wrote with Clare Cho last year for the center, which focuses on policies that affect low- and moderate-income Americans. Tightened eligibility standards in the state of Washington affected 19,000 low-income residents in 2011. States have been eliminating or curbing their general-assistance programs for decades, according to Schott.

Ending Assistance

From 1989 to 1998, states including Montana, South Carolina and Wyoming dropped their programs, and 12 others cut off aid for people considered employable, according to the report. Missouri, Oregon, Arizona, Wisconsin and Idaho had ended their programs by 2010. Assistance payments are continuing in 29 states, Schott said.

Yet in almost each program that has survived, benefit levels have been reduced, even as the longest recession since the Depression and its aftermath increased the need for help, according to the report.

Childless adults in Pennsylvania who are disabled or are victims of domestic violence, and who have less than $250, qualify for aid under the state program set to end next month, said Michael Froehlich, a lawyer with Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, a nonprofit group that counsels low-income residents in the state’s largest city by population.

‘Temporary Bridge’

For some aid recipients, the checks provide “a temporary bridge to stability” as they await decisions on applications for benefits from the U.S. Social Security Administration under disability programs, Froehlich said by telephone. Processing the paperwork by the agency takes an average of 18 months, he said.

While aid recipients may still receive health benefits and food subsidies through federally funded programs, there’s no replacement for cash assistance that helped many of his clients pay their rent, Froehlich said.

“You take away that program, and there’s nowhere else for folks to turn,” he said. “It will inevitably lead to increased homelessness, and more people will be on the streets.”

Pennsylvania’s measure was part of the $27.7 billion budget for the year that began July 1.

“Pennsylvania has its hands tied” because of federal mandates, Miller, the Welfare Department spokeswoman, said by telephone. “We were forced to look at state-only funded programs and this was one instance we were forced to eliminate.”

The state is encouraging recipients facing a cutoff to ask their county welfare offices to help them find other benefits, Miller said. Froehlich, however, said there are no options since the program targeted people who don’t qualify for federal help, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

“People don’t know what they’re going to do Aug. 1,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Romy Varghese in Philadelphia at rvarghese8@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at smerelman@bloomberg.net

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