Head shot of Jennifer Wolff smiling with blonde hair and a flower shirt
Jennifer Wolff joined PA Health Access Network (PHAN) in 2019 as a Policy Analyst focusing on health equity campaigns. Prior to this role, she worked in mental health policy, advocating for a more responsive mental and behavioral health system. Jennifer is passionate about health equity and addressing the social determinants of health through healthcare reform. Jennifer is originally from Chicago, and holds a Bachelors of Social Work from Indiana University – Bloomington, and a Masters of Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania. In her free time, she enjoys watching Jeopardy, reruns of The West Wing, and baking.

For people with little to no income in Pennsylvania, the process of buying daily necessities such as toilet paper, deodorant, and laundry detergent can be extraordinarily difficult. SNAP (food stamps) benefits are restrictive and don’t cover non-food items, and non-profits run out of donated supplies quickly, especially during extreme heat or cold.

The state General Assistance (GA) program was designed for this reason.

General Assistance was a small, targeted and temporary program that helped people get through a crisis period by providing a small amount of financial assistance that recipients can use to pay for co-pays for medications, to contribute toward rent or utility bills, or to buy necessities like a winter coat or personal care items like deodorant.

The current COVID-19 health crisis – along with unprecedented levels of unemployment, income loss, and uncertainty – has made it clear that programs like General Assistance are more critical than ever.   

General Assistance was available only to very specific populations – and at least 80% of recipients have a temporary or permanent disability.  According to a report earlier this year from Allsup, an Illinois-based company that helps people enroll in benefits, more than 800,000 people nationally (almost 38,000 people in Pennsylvania alone) were waiting for a hearing that would determine their eligibility for federal benefits[1].  Currently, the average wait time for a hearing is over a year and a half.  The Social Security Administration called its backlog of pending appeals a “public service crisis.”[2] In 2017, over 10,000 people died waiting for benefits[3]. Without General Assistance, there is no safety net, and folks have nowhere to turn.

Importantly, for people applying for disability services, General Assistance functions as a loan.  When GA recipients receive Social Security Disability payments after waiting months or years to be approved, all of the GA benefits issued to that person are taken out of that payment and go directly into the state treasury.  For people using General Assistance under other categories – such as those escaping domestic violence or who are in treatment for a substance use disorder – the program is limited to only 9 months.

General Assistance has become a critical program for Pennsylvanians to meet their most basic needs as they weather through a crisis period.  General Assistance helps people avoid losing their homes or ending up in a medical emergency, and it is far less expensive than the services—such  as homeless shelters or hospitals—that would be required to manage these emergencies.

Despite all this, the General Assistance program has been under attack in Harrisburg for years.  It was eliminated by the legislature in 2012 and after recently being reinstated by the courts, was eliminated again this past June. However, in the small amount of time in which the program was reinstated, over 11,0000 Pennsylvanians statewide have benefited from the program.

Thankfully, the fight isn’t over yet. GA recipients have not been forgotten, and a small group of legislators have already introduced similar legislation hoping to restore and expand the program and an appellate court decision is pending.

As advocates, we call on the legislature to preserve the General Assistance program.  Without it, thousands of people will have lost one of the only options they have to meet their most basic needs. Pennsylvania should always be looking for new ways to lift up our most vulnerable, not keep them down when they need us most.

[1] https://www.truehelp.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/state-by-state-hearing-backlog_January-2019.pdf

[2] https://www.inquirer.com/philly/news/politics/ssi-delays-disability-hearing-20180107.html