Pa. cash welfare program ends, court rejects injunction request

(Commonwealth of Pennsylvania)

Payments have ended under a Depression-era program that provided about $200 a month to poor or disabled Pennsylvanians, while a state court rejected an effort to keep the payments continuing during a legal challenge.

The program known as general assistance ended Thursday under a month-old law that transformed an otherwise smooth budget season in the state Capitol into an ugly, tense and partisan affair.

Debate in June over the legislation erupted into a spasm of shouting, name-calling and bare-knuckled procedural tactics in the Senate, the likes of which lawmakers roundly said they had never witnessed in the chamber.

Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, opposed the program’s elimination, and said his administration is trying to ensure its roughly 11,000 recipients get social services that can help them, like food and housing.

“To the best of our ability, we are connecting people with available resources and making the nonprofit community aware of the potential for increased need,” Wolf said in statement late Thursday.

Wolf’s office had projected the program’s cost at $24 million this year.

Recipients received between $174 and $215 per month, depending on their county of residence, and have said they used the cash for necessities, such as rent, utility bills, bus fare, medicine, medical co-payments or toiletries.

It was intended to aid adults who are deemed temporarily unable to work or are awaiting a decision on their application for Social Security disability aid. The program also helps teens aging out of foster care, people in addiction treatment and women fleeing domestic violence.

Determined to end the program, Republicans who control the Legislature packaged its elimination into legislation reauthorizing state subsidies for Philadelphia hospitals.

Not a single Democratic lawmaker voted for the bill, but Wolf said he had no choice but to sign it.

On Thursday, the state Commonwealth Court rejected an injunction request to keep the payments continuing while it hears a lawsuit by Community Legal Services of Philadelphia and Disability Rights Pennsylvania.

The decision on the injunction can be appealed to the state Supreme Court. Maria Pulzetti, a lawyer for Community Legal Services, said Friday that she and the other plaintiffs’ lawyers were reviewing their legal options and will continue to litigate the case.

She said they were disappointed that the court didn’t consider the harm to her clients — four women who were general assistance recipients — in losing their only source of income.

“We’re very concerned for our clients and we’re going to figure out what to do next,” Pulzetti said.

One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Patricia Shallick, 57, is unable to work because of various maladies, including severe migraines, arthritis and schizophrenia, according to the lawsuit. She lived in a home without running water, it said.

Wolf’s administration, named as the defendant, argued that an injunction was not warranted. The plaintiffs did not make a compelling case that the law is likely to be found unconstitutional, it argued, and the court agreed.

The lawsuit says lawmakers violated constitutional guidelines on legislative procedure when passing the bill eliminating general assistance.

Lawmakers tried ending the cash benefit in 2012 under then-Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican. However, the state Supreme Court last year overturned that law on similar technical grounds and Wolf’s administration restarted the program.