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Some could lose temporary cash benefit to state budget cuts

Mary Ann Thomas
| Friday, June 22, 2012, 7:35 p.m.

Two-hundred dollars a month might not seem like a lot of money, but it is for a blind man in Arnold who was laid off from his job earlier this year at the Westmoreland County Blind Association in Greensburg.

And that $205 in cash assistance from the state Public Welfare Department means everything to a Vandergrift woman trying to find a job after being released from prison after serving time for fatally shooting her husband in 2003.

The state's $27.6 billion budget that calls for eliminating the $150 million General Assistance cash benefit program that provides temporary assistance to disabled or sick adults, domestic violence survivors and adults undergoing alcohol and drug treatment.

The governor and top Republican leaders reached an agreement on the budget Wednesday that includes eliminating the program.

Although the budget is not final, local legislators expect the program cuts to hold.

About 70,000 people currently receive the monthly benefit.

"Two-hundred-dollars a month doesn't sound like a lot, but it is when it's something that you won't have," said Bob Boehn, 47, of Kenneth Avenue in Arnold.

Boehn's blindness was caused by complications of eye cancer.

The cut in his cash assistance will make it difficult for him to pay for transportation, Boehn said.

Since he is blind, access to public transportation already is difficult and limited, especially just getting out the door to reach public buses.

"I can't walk out of here," Boehn said. "I'm stranded here," he said of living in a second-floor apartment. "I got nothing."

He needs a ride, which costs money, just to reach public transportation to go to a job or retraining.

"It's going to kill me," Boehn said. "It's hard when they take programs away. You're screwed."

He continues to look for work, explore retraining and returning to a public high-rise apartment building where access to services is easier.

Convicted forever

Although she did six years of jail time to pay her debt to society, Diana Ross can't seem to get a break.

She was incarcerated in 2005 for killing her husband, Dennis Ross, in Kiski Township, after pleading guilty to third-degree murder.

At that time, Armstrong County District Attorney Scott Andreassi said doctors hired by the prosecution and the defense had reached similar conclusions that Ross had "serious mental issues" at the time of the shooting.

When she was released from jail in February 2010, she stayed at her daughter's home and started filling out what has become a continuous stream of job applications.

Ross is yet to find even a part-time job.

She has disability issues, too: After her conviction, she was diagnosed with mental-health issues, which has included severe depression. And she has knee problems.

The $205 monthly general assistance is what she lives on.

"It's my lifeline," said Ross, 57. "That money helped get me into an apartment in the Vandergrift (public) high-rise."

And that $205 gets carved up fast: One-third goes for rent; $45 goes toward insurance on a car that her sister gave her; $7 pays for her land line phone service with no long distance; with the rest going to paper products, clothing and incidentals.

She receives about $180 in food stamps monthly.

Ross said if she losses the money and still is without a job, she will have to leave the high-rise and go live with family.

"I keep doing things," she said. "I don't sit around."

She volunteers at St. Gertrude Roman Catholic Church in Vandergrift for their spaghetti dinners and she gardens at the high-rise.

"I'm still putting in applications," Ross said. "Hopefully, I'll get a job locally."

Ross said there are other people with similar life challenges involving employment and disabilities.

"If you are waiting on something else or trying to get a job, this money is something people need until they can get their life together."

Politics and cuts

Gov. Tom Corbett, who ran on a "no new taxes" pledge, did away with the $150,000 million General Assistance benefit as part of his budget plan that he released in February.

The budget calls for a series of cutbacks he blamed largely on the rising cost of pensions and health care for the poor.

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, suggested the House -- which like the Senate is controlled by Republicans -- is unlikely to save the General Assistance cash benefit from elimination.

"There's aspects to the program that are too discretionary, and they need (to be) reformed at a minimum," Turzai said.

Asked why the state couldn't keep the program while improving it, Turzai responded: "I think there's just been a history of abuse that's been shown there, and it needs further reform and further reduction."

But Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, said that argument isn't valid anymore.

"There's a lot of rhetoric and baiting on the welfare issue that some want to stigmatize public assistance," Ferlo said.

Rep. Joe Petrarca, D-Washington Township, said there are some issues with the program, but "total elimination is going too far.

"We're talking about disabled adults," he said. "Some of them legitimately need help."

Ferlo said that general assistance for able-bodied people was eliminated by Gov. Tom Ridge's administration years ago.

"The welfare recipient driving a Cadillac is not the reality of the public welfare program budget and our state," he said.

On the prospect of the program surviving the budget ax, Ferlo and Petrarca said the outlook is not good.

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