Criticism for cuts to programs that help people get off welfare

Emily Edwards and son, Bobby, 3: Cutting the welfare-to-work program she was in is "the dumbest thing I ever heard. Ever."
Emily Edwards and son, Bobby, 3: Cutting the welfare-to-work program she was in is "the dumbest thing I ever heard. Ever." (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 04, 2011

In a GED classroom emptied by state budget cuts last Thursday, instructor Marylou Fusco began removing paper cutouts that her students - single mothers working to get off welfare - had made of their own hands that were tacked to a bulletin board.

On the palms of the hands, the women had written their life goals: "Get off welfare." "Go to college." "Get my own place for me and my kids."

After 15 years, the GED classes were quickly ended to reflect the new reality dictated by state budget line No. 5297.55: Cut the welfare-to-work program by $17 million - nearly 48 percent.

The new reality postpones or ends the hopes and wishes scrawled across the women's palms.

Still more cuts were made in other programs meant to help the poor in a budget process that saw the Corbett administration push through a controversial last-minute Senate measure that shifts control of welfare funding from the legislature to his administration.

Defending the budget cuts, Michael Race, a spokesman for the Department of Public Welfare, wrote in an e-mail that the budget "strikes a balance between two important goals: preserving the public-assistance safety net for those in need while not placing additional burdens on the Pennsylvania taxpayers. . . .

"If we continue on a path of unchecked spending increases, these services will become unsustainable and so will the burden placed on taxpayers."

Roxanne Green, program manager of the PathWaysPA Earn Center in North Philadelphia, where the GED class had been held, said that her students were preoccupied by poverty and had no idea that budget machinations in Harrisburg could have such profound repercussions on their lives, she added.

"It's hard to warn people about a tsunami coming when they don't know what a tsunami is," said Green, who, like Fusco, was made jobless by the cuts.

The fretting was echoed throughout the area, as people living in poverty and their advocates began to assess the cuts late last week.

Along with the slashing of welfare-to-work programs, the legislature also cut $44 million, or 16 percent, of the welfare cash budget.

Further, it cut child-care subsidies, which welfare recipients use to have their children looked after while they work or train, by $17.6 million, or 9 percent.

And it eliminated $500,000 from the state's food-purchase program - the equivalent of denying 53 tractor-trailers filled with food to food pantries, according to Steveanna Wynn, executive director of the SHARE Food Program, which supplies city pantries.

Many people were especially confused about the decision to slash nearly half the welfare-to-work budget, given growing societal antipathy toward welfare.

"You want us to advance and get off welfare," said Emily Edwards, 27, a laid-off receptionist and single mother of a 3-year-old getting welfare payments of $158.50 every two weeks. "Then at the same time, you cut the very programs that help us advance.

"It's the dumbest thing I ever heard. Ever."

Edwards, who was in a welfare-to-work program that was cut, said that poor people wind up believing that the government wants them to remain impoverished.

"We're trying to keep our children out of the same welfare lines we're in," said Edwards, who lives in West Philadelphia. "But you cut welfare-to-work and people get stagnated. They're cutting us off by our necks."

Whitney Henry, 24, a Germantown single mother of two who is trying to transition from welfare to work, said that she could not afford child care now that some of the program was cut.

"There are families out here without food and money," she said. "You just can't take away all this money. What are we supposed to do?"

Prejudice against the poor explains why so much budget cutting seems to come at the expense of the indigent, said Alyson Showell, the now laid-off coordinator of Move Up Philadelphia, which provided job skills, among other things, for the poor. It was ended as part of the budget cuts.

"There's a bias against the poor," Showell said. "There's a lack of understanding. You want them to work, but how are we going to get them there? How are they going to get a job if we can't teach them how to form a resumé, or use computers?"

For her part, Wynn, of SHARE, worries that the accumulation of cuts will have profound effects.

"I'm not sure the governor and the legislature realize how serious the problem is," she said. "If they did, they wouldn't be making cuts to people living on the edge. All this does is bring another level of devastation to already poor people.

"This will keep me up at night, because there is not enough food in the city."

Advocates and budget analysts were puzzled by the legislature's eleventh-hour decision to allow the Department of Public Welfare to make decisions about welfare, Medicaid, and food stamps without legislative input or oversight. An already opaque organization will be granted still more power to make decisions affecting the poor without scrutiny, advocates say.

"This is a major dismantling of democracy in Pennsylvania," said Mariana Chilton, a professor in the Drexel University School of Public Health and a leading national expert on hunger. "It cuts out the advocates who can help fight for those who are poor. This is a backdoor magic trick."

Sharon Ward, executive director of the nonprofit Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, said she wondered why "such sweeping changes were made in secrecy with 15 minutes' notice two days before the legislature left for the summer."

Last week, DPW Secretary Gary Alexander told The Inquirer that the changes were not meant to circumvent public scrutiny, adding: "Anything we do will be done in an open fashion, with stakeholder input and with public comment."

But a skeptical Ward countered, "If you're willing to involve the public in a full review of policy changes, then you don't need expedited rule-making authority."

Contact staff writer Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or Read his blog, "The Joint Custodian," at

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