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Nearly 1.8 Million in PA Will See Food Assistance Cut

10:11 am in Uncategorized by ThirdandState

By Chris Lilienthal, Third and State

SNAP helps nearly 1 in 3 U.S. children get enough to eat. All of them will see their benefits cut in November.Nutrition assistance is our nation’s first line of defense against hunger and a powerful tool to help keep families out of poverty. Come November, this critical federal assistance will be cut, making it that much more difficult for 1.8 million Pennsylvanians to put food on the table for themselves and their families.

The November cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the program formerly known as food stamps, will impact all of the more than 47 million Americans, including 22 million children, who receive benefits. It will likely amount to a reduction of $29 a month in benefits for a family of three — $319 in all through September 2014. This is a serious loss for families whose benefits, after this cut, will average less than $1.40 per person per meal.

To put the cut in some perspective, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates it will equal out to 21 lost meals per month for a family of four or 16 lost meals per month for a family of three.

A majority of those who receive SNAP benefits are children and the elderly, for whom food assistance is essential. SNAP helps nearly one in three children in the U.S. get enough to eat. All 22 million of them will see their benefits cut in November.

Elderly Pennsylvanians will also be affected. People like Ruth Vesa, a 78-year-old widow in Pittsburgh and Just Harvest client, who said: “I’m very thankful for the food stamp program because it enables me to have good food to eat and not be worried about my medical prescriptions. Otherwise I would have to make a choice. Any cuts to the program would be hurtful to me personally.”

In addition to helping to feed hungry families, SNAP is one of the fastest, most effective ways to spur the economy. Every $1 increase in SNAP benefits generates about $1.70 in economic activity. Benefits boost demand for farm produce, helping to keep our nation’s farms strong.

So why is it being cut? The cut is the result of an expiring provision in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) that temporarily boosted SNAP benefits to strengthen the economy and ease hardship in the wake of the recession. This small increase has been a lifeline for many Pennsylvanians, a majority of whom work but earn low wages. It has allowed them to stay afloat during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Even though the economy is still weak and families are still struggling, Congress has not acted to extend the modest increase in nutrition assistance beyond November. In fact, the U.S. House of Representatives could vote on cutting the program by $20 billion or more in the coming weeks. If enacted, such cuts could leave many families and their children without assistance to put food on the table when they need it most.

That is the wrong path for the wellbeing of our nation, the health of our families, and the growth of our economy.

Not Exactly a Mahogany-paneled Corporate Boardroom

10:42 am in Uncategorized by ThirdandState

By Kate Atkins, Third and State

Montgomery County Budget ForumA hundred days after passage of the state budget, it is too soon to fully assess the impact of cuts to human services, Montgomery County’s administrator for behavioral health and developmental disabilities told a group of 50 consumers and social service providers at a budget forum last week.

Still, Administrator Eric Goldstein told the forum at the Norristown Recovery and Education Center that he has concerns about the state’s move toward block grants for human services funding. Unlike Bucks, Chester, and Delaware counties, Montgomery County did not apply to be part of this year’s new pilot block grant for the Human Services Development Fund.

Eric Goldstein was joined by speaker after speaker who testified to the importance of the modest dollars invested in prevention and community supports for people struggling with mental illness or substance abuse.

One speaker, Troy, a solidly built man with a confident manner and a winning smile, said people call him a “success story,” but he remembered the days when he struggled with drug addiction. He described how he would walk into the Norristown Center and feel a lift from the friendly and familiar faces of the staff, who would ask him how he was doing.

“I’m looking for a job,” he would tell them.

“Really?” they would reply.

“No,” he would admit. “Not really.”

Through the Center, which is run by the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania, Troy built up his self-esteem and was able to find work counseling others.

In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t cost a lot of money to maintain a drop-in center in Norristown. Eric Goldstein, gesturing to the neatly-painted cinder block walls and freshly waxed linoleum floor, pointed out that it wasn’t exactly a mahogany-paneled corporate boardroom. But the cost of not having local community resources like this one would be enormous.

Another speaker began by saying she had not wanted to speak, but realized she had to. She was an elementary school teacher, she began, from a family of ministers, educators, and lawyers. In her late thirties, she went through a difficult period after the death of her mother and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She was not able to keep her job. Her family did not believe the diagnosis, she told us, and shut their doors to her.

“Strangers had to take me in,” she said, tears in her eyes. “Strangers.”

She is now living in the Halfway There shelter as she puts her life back together.

Eric Goldstein closed the evening by reminding the crowd that we are in this together. The line, he said, between people with mental illness and the rest of us is very thin.

Representative Matt Bradford also spoke, reminding us that the state is facing hard economic times but does have choices in how to respond to the challenging fiscal reality. He cited the Legislature’s decision to give up to $1.6 billion in tax credits to Shell Oil at the same time the state is cutting funding for human services.

Get more information on how you can advocate with Better Choices for Pennsylvania for supports for people struggling with mental illness and substance abuse.

Piecing Together the PA Budget Framework

2:26 pm in Uncategorized by ThirdandState

(photo: Dbenbenn / wikimedia)

By Chris Lilienthal, Third and State

Some details emerged Thursday about the state budget framework unveiled midweek by Governor Tom Corbett and legislative leaders, but questions still remain. More details may be available later today when budget spreadsheets are released.

Funding for county human services is one area that appears to be in flux, as some House Republicans continue to voice concerns about a plan to block grant and cut that funding.

A number of GOP House lawmakers want to add more dollars for the mental health and mental disability programs in that mix, said [Rep. Mario] Scavello.

A Senate-approved bill restores half of the $168 million spending cut for the human services programs initially proposed by Mr. Corbett. House members would like to restore even more money but have to balance that with cuts elsewhere, he added.

Although the statewide association representing county commissioners recently agreed to a two-year phase-in for the block grant, Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-18, Bensalem, chairman of the House Human Services Committee, said he’s trying to stop the block grant altogether and substitute a pilot program for several counties instead …

The seven programs considered for a block grant include community mental health and mental disability services, the human services development fund, homeless assistance, child welfare grants, the Behavorial Health Services Initiative and Act 152 drug and alcohol treatment programs.

While there is some hope for restoring more funds to county human services, one area that appeared not to make the cut is the state’s General Assistance Program. The governor proposed — and legislative leaders appear to have agreed to — eliminating this modest benefit for temporarily disabled adults, which will have a devastating on nearly 70,000 Pennsylvanians striving to avoid homelessness and build a better life for themselves.

One item unlikely to survive, despite protests from church groups and advocates for the poor, is the so-called general assistance program that provides cash benefits to nearly 70,000 temporarily disabled adults. Corbett proposed eliminating the funding, and legislative leaders did not seek to restore it.

Brenda Freeman of West Philadelphia, who has peripheral edema, which swells tissues in her arms and legs, said that program had been “my only income.” Freeman, 38, whose condition makes it very difficult to stand or sit for long periods and who telephoned The Inquirer to protest the cut, said: “What am I going to have to do — eat out of a trash can?”

“There still is a chance to do something,” she said. “I’m hoping that they do the right thing.”

Pennsylvania’s public schools and universities are likely to see no change in their funding, after sustaining deep cuts in the budget enacted last year.

On Thursday afternoon, the House Appropriations Committee approved funding bills for the four state-related universities as well as the Veterinary School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Though he stopped short of confirming that the schools — Penn State, Temple and Lincoln universities and the University of Pittsburgh — would be flat-funded at current levels, “we are working toward that idea,” said Drew Crompton, the chief of staff to Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson.

The four schools were targeted for 30 percent cuts in Corbett’s $27.14 billion budget proposal unveiled in February. An amended version of the budget approved by the Senate this spring would fund at current levels: Penn State at $227 million; Temple at $139 million; Lincoln at $11 million and the University of Pittsburgh at $136 million.

Crompton said budget negotiators are moving in a similar direction with the state system schools … The schools would be maintained at their current level of $412 million.

Finally, multiple newspapers are reporting that Accountability Block Grants, which support full-day kindergarten and other early childhood programs, will be restored to $100 million after the governor proposed eliminating them. More funding will likely be approved for distressed schools and to expand the state Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program, which allows businesses to donate to private school scholarships and recover most, if not all, of their contribution through tax benefits.

Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery, said negotiators told him the tentative agreement includes $25 million to expand the current Educational Improvement Tax Credit program, which is currently funded at $75 million. An additional $50 million would be available to students who attend a school among the state’s lowest-achieving 15 percent.

The Myths Behind Governor Corbett’s PA Budget Myths

7:48 am in Uncategorized by ThirdandState

By Sharon Ward, Third and State

Governor Tom Corbett’s May 21 newsletter offered up responses to five “myths” the administration claims are circulating about his proposed budget for next year. The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center examined these myths and the myths behind the myths to give you a clear picture about what is fact and what is fiction in Harrisburg.

Governor’s Myth #1: Pennsylvania spends more money building prisons than building schools.

We’re not sure where this one came from, but we will give it a whirl.

Fact: The Corbett administration’s budget includes a moratorium on new school construction projections, and NO FUNDING for school district projects in the pipeline.

Fact: If the Governor’s proposed plan for higher education is adopted, Pennsylvania will spend twice as much on prisons as it does on colleges. In 2009-10, the state’s corrections budget was $1.8 billion and college funding was $1.5 billion. If the Governor had his way, Pennsylvania would spend $1.9 billion on corrections and $980 million on colleges in 2012-13.

Fact: It costs the state much more to house prisoners than it does to educate a child. In 2011-12, Pennsylvania will house 49,000 inmates at a cost of $35,188 per inmate and spend $9.3 billion to educate 1.8 million students at a cost in state dollars of $5,305 per child.

Fact: It is better to build schools than to build prisons.

Governor’s Myth #2: The reductions in higher education funding will cause universities to raise tuition.

Well, cutting college funding is certainly not going to help keep tuition down.

Fact: Public subsidies keep college tuition more affordable. In 2009-10, the average cost (nationally) of a public four-year college education was $15,014, while the average cost of a four-year private college was more than double at $32,790.

Fact: From 1999 to 2011, Pennsylvania’s state funding for higher education fell by 12%.

Fact: The Governor and General Assembly cut public colleges by 20% last year, and the Governor proposed to cut 30% more this year.

Fact: Pennsylvania ranked 46th in public college funding as a share of personal income in 2011-12.

Fact: Our economy can’t grow if our children don’t have a college education.

Governor’s Myth #3: The proposed budget reduces funding for K-12 education and will force school districts to raise property taxes.

That’s no myth, that’s a fact.

Fact: The budget proposed by Governor Corbett and enacted by the General Assembly in June 2011 gave school districts $860 million less than they received the previous year. That included a reduction of 7%, or $421 million, in the basic education subsidy.

Fact: The Governor’s cuts killed jobs. School districts cut programs, raised taxes and eliminated positions. In 2011, the state lost 14,000 jobs in public schools and universities.

Governor’s Myth #4: The elimination of cash assistance will mainly hurt children and victims of domestic violence.

Fact: In February, the Governor proposed eliminating the General Assistance program. The Governor is right: most of those affected are people with a permanent disability waiting for approval for Social Security disability benefits, or those who have an addiction and are eligible to receive the $200 monthly grant for seven months, in their lifetime.

Fact: Women and children lost their health care, not cash assistance, when the Department of Public Welfare did a quick and dirty eligibility review and threw 88,000 kids out of state health insurance programs. Moms, seniors and people with disabilities (the only ones who can get health care coverage through Medical Assistance) lost their coverage too.

Fact: The budget cuts vulnerable adults as well as children. Do you feel better now?

Governor’s Myth #5: The proposed budget reduces funding for the arts.

Fact: The Governor has level-funded grants for the arts for two years. What has gone by the wayside is arts and music education that have been slashed by school districts as a result of the cuts to education (see Myth #2).

The Future of Health and Human Services in PA

7:56 am in Uncategorized by ThirdandState

A blog post by Sharon Ward, originally published at Third and State.

On Wednesday, I was on WITF’s Radio Smart Talk in Harrisburg to discuss the state of health and human services in Pennsylvania.

I explained that it was important for the commonwealth to spend taxpayer money wisely, but that current policies were resulting in eligible Pennsylvanians, including thousands of children, losing their health care.

Rather than taking away health care from children or jeopardizing the nursing care of seniors, I said state policymakers should look at alternatives, including closing tax loopholes and ending corporate welfare.

You can listen to the show at WITF’s web site. Let us know what you think in the comments section.

Combine and Cut: PA Governor’s Block Grant Plan for County Human Services

1:20 pm in Uncategorized by ThirdandState

A blog post by Chris Lilienthal, originally published at Third and State.

A week after Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett rolled out his state budget, many people are still trying to make sense of it.

Perhaps the biggest reshuffling in the Department of Public Welfare budget involves the expansion of the Human Services Development Fund, a flexible funding stream used for a wide variety of human services at the county level. This fund has been repeatedly reduced over the past few year. The new budget combines and cuts funding for other programs into a single Human Services Development Fund Block Grant.

All told, the new block grant is funded at nearly $674 million. That reflects a cut of more than $168 million, or 20%. Portions of a variety of health and human service programs ranging from homeless assistance to mental health services to protecting children from abuse would be impacted (see the table below).

DPW Programs transferred to Human Services Development Fund block grant (in $ thousands)

Portions of programs transferred to HSDF block grant:
Medical Assistance – Outpatient ($14,727)
Behavioral Health Services (47,908)
Mental Health Services (550,469)
ID – Community Base Program (144,974)
County Child Welfare (48,533)
HSDF (14,956)
Homeless Assistance (20,551)
Total ($842,118)
Human Services Development Fund Block Grant Funding $673,695
Net Funding Reduction ($168,423)
Net Reduction Percent -20%
Compiled by the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center

Morning Must Reads: Budget Cuts and Layoffs

6:18 am in Uncategorized by ThirdandState

Cut Cut Cut! (Photo: sociotard, flickr)

Cut Cut Cut! (Photo: sociotard, flickr)

A blog post by Mark Price, originally published at Third and State.

Later today, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry will release the state’s September job numbers. The Philadelphia Federal Reserve is forecasting (PDF) the unemployment rate in Pennsylvania will rise a tenth of a percentage point to 8.3% in September. If that forecast holds up, the unemployment rate in Pennsylvania will have risen by nine-tenths of a percentage point since May. Based on this morning’s headlines, we can expect more bad news in the months ahead.

Philadelphia-based Checkpoint Systems Inc. announced plans to expand a restructuring program to cut expenses and jobs.

The maker of anti-theft devices for retail chains said its new plans would affect 1,000 existing employees, up from the 204 in its original scheme. Checkpoint said it had ‘already taken steps to eliminate three senior executive positions’ and intends to ‘aggressively take out layers of management.’

In addition, Checkpoint plans to close four production facilities, but did not specify where in its news release.

While job creation in the private sector remains weak, the public sector continues to make the problem worse mostly by punishing the most vulnerable in our society. Read the rest of this entry →