Pennsylvania's controversial public welfare secretary will leave next week

Gary Alexander drew fire with food-stamp asset test.
Gary Alexander drew fire with food-stamp asset test.
Posted: February 10, 2013

It's official: The Corbett administration's public welfare secretary, Gary Alexander, has resigned, effective next week.

Deputy Secretary Bev Mackereth, a former state representative and former director of York County human services, was named acting secretary Friday. There was no immediate word on when a permanent successor might be named.

Earlier in the week, The Inquirer reported that Alexander was departing after two sometimes-tempestuous years overseeing a department charged with helping 2.1 million elderly, poor and disabled Pennsylvanians. He was often a focus of reaction to the administration's cuts to welfare programs in efforts to reduce costs and balance the state budget.

Alexander plans to pursue private-sector opportunities and spend more time with his wife and children, who live in Rhode Island, according to an administration spokesperson.

"I am grateful to Gov. Corbett for giving me the opportunity to serve the commonwealth during his tenure," Alexander said in a prepared statement. "We've accomplished a great deal in Pennsylvania." An administration statement credited him with "creating and implementing a national model for eradicating fraud, waste, and abuse" in public assistance programs, helping establish a county block-grant program, and enhancing services for intellectually and physically disabled individuals.

Alexander generated national news when he instituted a test to make the amount of food stamps people can receive contingent on the assets they possess. The move came as other states were looking to eliminate such tests as unfair to elderly people saving for burials, poor people trying to save enough to escape poverty, and people who lost jobs in the recession.

His department also faced controversy after 130,000 people, 89,000 of them children, were dropped from Medicaid rolls. And it ended the General Assistance program, which had offered about $200 in monthly benefits to more than 60,000 disabled or sick unemployed adults, domestic-violence survivors, and adults in drug and alcohol treatment programs.

Many of Alexander's critics will applaud Mackereth's appointment, predicted Cathleen Palm, executive director of the Protect Our Children Committee and a leading expert on welfare in the state.

"I think we can count on her to be much more empathetic than Gary Alexander proved to be," Palm said Friday. "She is very respected by lawmakers because she was a state representative from York for years. Also, she comes from a human-services agency and has seen firsthand the struggles people go through to support their families and the hard choices they're forced to make. Plus, she's a Pennsylvanian and knows the dynamics of Harrisburg."

Mackereth is the mother of four children, ages 20 through 30. "She has the perspective of a mom with kids," Palm said. She'll still have to make tough choices. She's not a saint, but a breath of fresh air. I think children and families just got a big leg up in Pennsylvania."


Contact Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.

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