Certainly not a welfare state

Posted: January 14, 2010

My client told me he was living on food stamps and a monthly state welfare check for $205 - the most a person in need could get in 1996. He couldn't walk without horrible pain, as his leg had not healed properly since he broke it in several places a few years before.

He had always worked on his feet and didn't think he could work again, though he had not been able to prove this to the federal government's satisfaction. If we could prove it and get him Social Security or Supplemental Security Income benefits, we could more than double his income.

When I went to see my client, he was on a cot in a kitchen, with an afghan covering his stocking feet. His landlord was trying to make ends meet by renting the kitchen as a bedroom. The stove either didn't work or he wasn't allowed to use it; a hot plate was plugged in on a table a few feet away. He was grateful that there was a bathroom off the kitchen, though it smelled bad, and that he could get to it, though with much effort. Most of his cash went for this living arrangement. It was what $205 a month would buy in 1996.

You might hope that in 2009, we support our poor better than we did in 1996. We do not. The amount a man on welfare gets to support himself has not increased. I don't mean it hasn't increased in real dollars, adjusted for inflation; I mean it hasn't increased at all.

The last welfare increase in Pennsylvania happened in 1990. A man on welfare got $205 a month to support himself then, and he gets that now. A family of three still gets $403 a month.

SSI and Social Security have been better. Cost-of-living adjustments have steadily increased the monthly SSI benefit by almost 75 percent, in contrast to the state's 0 percent. It has risen from $386 in 1990 to $674 a month last year.

This year, for the first time since 1975, Social Security and SSI benefits are not increasing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has determined that the cost of living has not increased.

It's scary; $674 a month does not buy much. It's only 75 percent of the federal poverty threshold, an antiquated standard that likely underestimates the minimum one must have for basic needs. But at least it's better than the state's expecting one to live on $205 a month, or 23 percent of the poverty line.

As our neediest struggle with what they get this year, we must recognize the wisdom of, at minimum, increasing federal benefits with the cost of living. We must ensure that this stagnation of Social Security and SSI benefits is a onetime event.

As Pennsylvanians, if we are judged by how well we care for the poor, we are failing. Let's not let the federal government follow our lead.

Spencer Rand is a clinical assistant professor at Temple University's Beasley School of Law, and with his students represents clients through the Temple Legal Aid Office.

He can be reached at srand@temple.edu.

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