Nearly 1.8 Million in PA Will See Food Assistance Cut

SNAP helps nearly 1 in 3 U.S. children get enough to eat. All of them will see their benefits cut in November.By Chris Lilienthal, Third and State

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

By Kate Atkins, Third and State

A 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

(Important news… – promoted by John Morgan)

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

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

Sharon Ward, director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, was on WITF’s Radio Smart Talk in Harrisburg this week to discuss the state of health and human services in Pennsylvania. She squared off with Matt Brouillette of the Commonwealth Foundation.

She 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, 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: Governor’s Block Grant Plan for County Human Services

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

A week after 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).

A Detailed Look at Pennsylvania’s 2011-12 Budget

A blog post from Sharon Ward, originally published on Third and State.

Two weeks ago, the Pennsylvania General Assembly completed work on a 2011-12 state budget that achieved Governor Tom Corbett’s primary objective – to meet a target spending number of $27.3 billion or lower, regardless of the impact.

The budget spends $27.249 billion, the lowest amount since the 2008-09 enacted budget, with cuts totaling more than $960 million.

Still trying to piece it all together? Well, the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center has you covered. On Wednesday, we released a detailed analysis of the new budget. Check it out and get all the details.

Here are a few highlights:

  • The budget uses only $200 million of a $786 million 2010-11 year-end surplus. The year-end surplus was 10 times the $78 million surplus projected in the Governor’s March budget proposal.
  • The budget suspends a legally required transfer of 25% of the year-end surplus to the Rainy Day Fund. Lawmakers say this was done as a condition of receiving funds through the American Recovery Act (ARRA). With 2010-11 lapses, perhaps as much as $1 billion is carried forward and unappropriated in 2011-12.
  • The budget presumes revenue growth of 1.2% in 2011-12, far less than the 4.7% assumed in the Governor’s budget proposal in March.
  • Public schools and universities bear the brunt of the cuts in the 2011-12 budget. Grants to school districts, including the basic education subsidy, reimbursements to school districts for the loss of students to charter schools and other program cuts total more than $860 million. Higher education institutions, including Penn State and the other three state-related universities, community colleges, and the 14 State System of Higher Education universities, are reduced by $245 million.
  • Several programs administrated by the Department of Public Welfare are also cut, including welfare-to-work and human services. While the overall reduction from current year spending is relatively small, less than 1%, the budget underestimates hundreds of millions of dollars of spending in the Medical Assistance program, which will either be addressed through supplemental appropriations later in the fiscal year or through program savings.
  • The Welfare Code bill enacted in concert with the budget gives DPW broad authority for one year to make program changes to cut costs. This includes the ability to sidestep formal rulemaking processes and to change program eligibility, modify benefits and provider payments, and to eliminate presumptive eligibility. This authority is granted with the goal of keeping DPW expenditures, including expenditures on entitlement programs, within budgeted amounts.

Learn more about what is in the budget by reading PBPC’s full analysis.

Pa. House Approves $27.3 Billion Budget

( – promoted by John Morgan)

A blog post from Chris Lilienthal, originally published on Third and State.

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives voted 109-92 Tuesday to approve a state budget that sets spending at $27.3 billion for the 2011-12 fiscal year – the same amount proposed in Governor Tom Corbett’s March budget plan.

The budget cuts $1 billion from public schools and reduces Governor Corbett’s budget by $471 million for health and human services for women, children and people with disabilities. It fails to enact a drilling tax on natural gas and leaves untouched a $500 million state revenue surplus.

Philadelphia GOP Representatives Dennis O’Brien and John Taylor joined all Democrats (except Representative Kenyatta Johnson, who was absent) to vote against the bill. All other Republicans (except Representative Nick Miccarelli, who was absent) voted in favor of the bill.

According to The Associated Press, at least 74 members spoke on the bill – which House Speaker Sam Smith said might constitute a record.

Now all eyes will be on the Senate, which will likely take up the bill in early June and move the process closer to a resolution.

In the House debate, many members raised concerns about cuts to schools, colleges, hospitals and services for the most vulnerable, and made the case for using the state’s $500 million revenue surplus. Otherwise, several members said, we will be facing higher property taxes, crowded classrooms for our kids and increased college tuition costs.

We have been saying for weeks that the House budget is a step backwards that keeps most of the cuts to schools and colleges while slashing human services. It will cost jobs in hospitals and puts health care at risk for 100,000 vulnerable families, seniors and people with disabilities.

Pennsylvania has the money to restore many of these cuts today. Lawmakers should use the $500 million surplus to restore cuts to schools and human services, and prevent local property tax increases. If you agree, Better Choices for Pennsylvania has an Action Page where you can send a message to your Senator in support of a more responsible budget.

If you want more details, the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center has a thorough analysis of the House budget (House Bill 1485). Better Choices for Pennsylvania also has talking points on the House budget.

A Quick Take on House GOP Budget Plan

A blog post from Chris Lilienthal, originally published on Third and State.

Pennsylvania House Republican leaders unveiled a state budget plan today that cuts $470 million in health and human services for vulnerable Pennsylvanians, while leaving in tact hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to schools, full-day kindergarten, Penn State and other colleges.

The plan would restore some of the deep cuts to education proposed in Governor Corbett’s budget blueprint – $387 million to the 18 state-supported colleges and universities and $210 million to public schools.

In March, Governor Corbett proposed $1.2 billion in cuts to education funding, including a $550 million cut to basic education funding, rolling back funding to 2008-09 levels. His plan also eliminates $259 million in funding for the Accountability Block Grant, which funds prekindergarten programs, full-day kindergarten and early childhood tutoring programs. The House GOP plan restores $100 million for basic education and $100 million for the early childhood programs. Still, this plan would cut about $1 billion for public schools.

The Governor also proposed a 50% cut to funding for the 14 colleges that comprise the State System of Higher Education, a 48% cut to Penn State’s funding and a 50% cut to funding for the University of Pittsburgh, Temple University and Lincoln University. The House GOP plan would still cut current state funding by 15% for the State System schools and by 25% for Penn State, Pittsburgh, Temple and Lincoln.

Notably, the plan leaves a $506 million revenue surplus on the sidelines.

The House plan also cuts $15 million out of the legislative budget and alters how the state reimburses school districts for Social Security payments in a way that will benefit wealthier school districts.

House Republican leaders said the Department of Public Welfare cuts were based on the belief that there is a 4% error rate within the department. The Governor, however, has raised doubts about basing a budget on projected savings by reducing errors.

Details on specific funding lines in the House plan were not available Tuesday afternoon. The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center will have a full analysis once those details are released.