PATRIOT NEWS OP-ED: Pennsylvania must regain its compassionate backbone
Is the commonwealth government’s sense of responsibility to uphold the constitutional mandate to work for the common good of all Pennsylvanians dead? This question came to me as I departed from the Department of Public Welfare budget briefing on Feb. 7. The only answer I could come up with in the moment was not yet — but it’s on life support and the prognosis looks grim.
The outlook is particularly bleak if you are poor, though it isn’t a lot better for higher education, public education or a lot of other activities that fall under the state’s purview.
While we in the faith community are doing what we can to alleviate the pain of those who struggle, we simply don’t have the resources to meet the increased need that would come as a result of the proposals we are seeing.
Many budget and policy proposals appear nonsensical, even mean-spirited. For example, the public welfare budget contains seemingly punitive proposals that place blame on and punish welfare recipients for being poor. Many proponents claim that benefit reductions provide incentives for hard work and persistence that will lift persons out of poverty — and if this doesn’t happen it’s the person who failed, not the economy.
Contrary to what some believe, sometimes assistance is needed to “level the playing field” for those who are without the “equipment” they need to play the game. One penny-wise and pound-foolish proposal is elimination of General Assistance that provides help to only the most vulnerable — less than half a percent of Pennsylvanians.
The benefit is barely subsistence, at $205 per month throughout most of the state — with 28 counties actually lower. Still, it means a great deal to those who do receive it. And Pennsylvania recoups a good chunk of these outlays when people with disabilities are approved for federal Social Security or SSI disability benefits, so the actual saving is even less. Therefore the funds, reclaimed by the state, are, in essence, a loan.
Another proposal, outside the budget, is reinstituting an asset test for SNAP (food stamp) recipients. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities cites that about 75 percent of SNAP recipients live in households with children, and more than one-quarter live in households with seniors or people with disabilities.
In fact, SNAP alone has kept many persons and families out of poverty and has lessened its affects on many others — including reductions in the number of children and seniors who go to bed hungry in Pennsylvania.
As a student of public policy, I believe reimplementing the asset test would cost the state more than continuing to administer the benefit to all qualified recipients. SNAP is a federal program, and Pennsylvania’s low error rate calls to question even the need for an asset test. Also, SNAP benefits are beneficial to Pennsylvania’s economy — Moody’s Analytics estimates that in a weak economy, every dollar increase in SNAP benefits generates $1.72 in economic activity.
Given that rate of return, it seems the cost of this proposal would outweigh any possible benefits. What is most outrageous, however, is the refusal to consider new sources of revenue and the closure of corporate tax loopholes.
The gas drilling industry and many large corporations benefit handsomely through the extraction of Pennsylvania’s valuable resources and the efforts and purchases of hard-working Pennsylvanians. There is no defense for the sorry excuse for a drilling fee passed on Feb. 8 when other major gas-producing states have instituted much greater fees with no resulting loss in business.
There is no excuse for companies that earn huge profits in Pennsylvania to pay less in taxes than we who work hard to earn a living in Pennsylvania. I am optimistic that like me, many Pennsylvanians support moral decisions that produce moral budgets, legislation and policies that support all Pennsylvanians, including those who are vulnerable.
I believe that we have the power to change a grim prognosis by demanding better of our elected and appointed officials now. Is that too much to ask?
The Rev. Sandra Strauss is director of public advocacy for the Pennsylvania Council of Churches and co-chair of the Coalition for Low-Income Pennsylvanians.
Read the full story at www.pennlive.com.