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For decades, public discussion about human services programs in Pennsylvania has been mired in fruitless debates about the size of government or the worthiness of the poor. Not only have these battles failed to reflect the realities of the lives of Pennsylvanians, but they have also delayed steps necessary to build an economy with broad-based prosperity. Under the Corbett Administration, programs for low-income Pennsylvanians have been poorly funded or cut altogether, with dire — and predictable — consequences. Yet our newly inaugurated governor, Tom Wolf, should not plan a mere reversion to pre-Corbett-era policies. Instead, Wolf and the incoming state legislature should take the following three steps to help more people in our state live healthy, secure and productive lives.

First, the Commonwealth should increase caseworker staffing and improve educational opportunities for the unemployed. Randomized-controlled trials have found that frequent meetings with a caseworker soon after job loss speeds re-entry to the labor force. At such meetings caseworkers review progress in the job search, provide counseling on resume preparation and job applications and give leads on job openings. In Pennsylvania, insufficient staffing of caseworkers has rendered this level of individual attention impossible. In the last decade, the number of caseworkers employed by the Department of Human Services in county assistance offices statewide has fallen from 8,000 to 4,400. Meanwhile, the Commonwealth’s job training and job placement programs have seen cuts of nearly 50 percent of total state and federal funding since the stimulus-era peak. Childcare services for low-income families have decreased nearly 20 percent in the last four years. The Corbett Administration has also cut many GED classes and threatened to terminate welfare benefits of single mothers in job certificate programs. Without training or education, beneficiaries are forced into minimum wage and part-time work. In many cases, they are back on welfare in short order.

Second, monthly General Assistance (GA) payments, a last line of support for some of the state’s most vulnerable, should be reinstated. After decades of cuts in benefits and tightening eligibility restrictions, GA ended entirely after Governor Corbett called for its cancellation in 2012. At that point, the program was providing monthly cash payments only to victims of domestic abuse, the temporarily disabled, addicts in recovery programs and caregivers for unrelated children. The program’s benefits were anemic, providing an average of $205 per month. But for the 70,000 Pennsylvanians receiving GA, it was a lifeline. While state policy should promote work among the employable, seeking short-term savings on the backs of vulnerable populations who have no other safety net is both cruel and fiscally imprudent.

Third, the Wolf Administration should scrap Corbett’s “Healthy PA” plan in favor of straightforward Medicaid expansion. Under the terms of the Affordable Care Act, the expansion would lower the number of uninsured Pennsylvanians by more than half while improving all Pennsylvanians’ financial security. Most of those newly covered will be low-income working adults. Governor Corbett’s “Healthy PA” proposal, which he insisted on implementing even after losing his reelection bid, requires monthly premiums for individuals and households who earn more than the federal poverty level. It also made drastic cuts to current Medicaid recipients’ access to medically necessary procedures and tests. Medicaid expansion should proceed without these new premiums and changes in coverage. In addition, the Commonwealth should use available data from food stamp and children’s health insurance program enrollment to identify newly Medicaid-eligible residents. Many states have used such data to enroll people quickly. Oregon, for instance, reduced the number of uninsured by 10 percent in less than one month.

For too long, the uninsured have gone without life-saving medical treatment or lived in fear of bankruptcy. Survivors fleeing abuse have been forced to sleep in the streets after their last lifeline of state assistance was cut off. The recently laid-off have waited in vain for help at County Assistance Offices. All of this can change. The three steps above will quickly ensure better health, higher income and greater opportunity for Pennsylvania’s low-income working and disabled populations. They should be top priorities for the Wolf Administration.

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