PA Legislature poised to give DPW broad authority to gut programs without legislative or public input

June 30, 2011

The Pennsylvania legislature, this week, is poised to pass H.B. 960 (as amended), which would give the Department of Public Welfare virtually unchecked authority to cut cash assistance, Medicaid, and welfare-to-work supports.

This bill abdicates the General Assembly’s responsibility to make  carefully reasoned choices affecting Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable citizens, by allowing DPW to dramatically increase child care co-payments, cut Medicaid benefits, and reduce eligibility for benefits – with no provision for  legislative oversight nor any opportunity for public comment.

This secretive amendment has been sprung on the public in the waning days of the budget debate.  This is not how decisions about critical safety net programs should be made.

Specifically, the bill provides for the following: Read the rest of this entry »

Today’s Budget Agreement Makes Even Deeper Cuts to Pennsylvania’s Most Vulnerable Families

June 27, 2011

The proposed budget agreement announced Monday afternoon includes even deeper cuts to programs and services that help Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable families struggling to move from welfare to work.

 The New Directions welfare-to-work programs that help low-income Pennsylvania families move from welfare to work will be cut by 47.6%.  The Corbett Administration projects that a cut of that magnitude means that 40% fewer cash assistance recipients will be able to participate in employment and training programs.

Child care subsidies for low-income families have been cut by 10%.  This will mean longer waiting lists or increased childcare co-pays for families struggling to survive on minimum wage jobs.  A $5 a week co-pay increase for a mother on TANF may be 5% of her monthly income.

“These cuts will make it even more difficult for Pennsylvania families to move from welfare to work just as the economic recovery appears to be stalling,” said Michael Froehlich, Staff Attorney with Community Legal Services.  “These cuts are penny wise and pound foolish.  If it is more difficult for welfare moms to get jobs, education, training, and child care, more people will remain on cash assistance for longer.”

Local welfare offices face unsustainable cuts while service demands increase.   In these difficult economic times, the welfare office is being called upon to provide critical safety net services to more and more Pennsylvanians with fewer and fewer resources.

Since July 2007, the number of unemployed Pennsylvanians is up 92%, the number of food stamp (SNAP) recipients is up 35%, the number of Medicaid recipients is up 16.5%, and the number of cash assistance recipients is up 3.5%.  Meanwhile, because of a loss of staff, welfare workers’ caseloads have gone up 89% (from 250 Medicaid and food stamp cases per worker to 472). Welfare offices have been sliced to the bone already, and additional cuts will impair basic governmental functions.  Welfare caseworkers are doing the best they can.  But they are completely overwhelmed and are operating with skeleton staff.

Update on the SSP class action lawsuit (Naylor v. DPW)

June 21, 2011

Over 359,000 low-income Pennsylvanians receive a monthly Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payment of no more than $674 per month because they are unable to work because of disability, blindness, or age.

Most Pennsylvanians who receive SSI also receive an additional state-funded payment called the State Supplementary Payment (SSP).

Until February 2010, the SSP was $27.40 per month for an individual (for most people.)  But in February 2010, the Department of Public Welfare abruptly reduced this amount to $22.10 without providing the opportunity for the public to comment on the proposed reduction.

To SSI recipients, this reduction in their income was significant.  The combined SSI and SSP monthly amounts of $696.10 for an individual now equal less than 78% of poverty.  For many SSI recipients, the reduction in SSP meant a missed meal, a medical co-pay that could not be met, or a paratransit ride that could not be taken.

In November 2010, Community Legal Services, together with Dechert LLP, filed a class action lawsuit against DPW.  We asserted that DPW wrongfully reduced the SSP without seeking public comment as required by Pennsylvania law.  The lawsuit is called Naylor v. DPW. Read the rest of this entry »

Philadelphia’s Foreclosure Diversion Program a Success

June 20, 2011

A new report from the Reinvestment Fund examines the effectiveness of the Diversion Program, Philadelphia’s response to the mortgage foreclosure crisis. The report outlines various indicators for success of the program and finds that it has had a significant impact since its inception in 2008.

Click here to view the Reinvestment Fund’s Report

Click here to view the Executive Summary


Press Release: Unemployment Benefits Bill Cuts Future Benefits Without Fixing System

June 16, 2011

Unemployment Benefits Bill Will Help Long-Term Unemployed Now, But It Cuts Future Benefits Without Fixing the Financing of the UC System

June 16, 2011 – Harrisburg lawmakers have agreed to a compromise bill that will allow an estimated 135,000 long-term unemployed Pennsylvanians to continue receiving unemployment benefits that are funded by the federal government. But this agreement makes permanent cuts in the state’s unemployment compensation (UC) program, without addressing the program’s flawed financing system that has caused the insolvency of the UC Fund.

Senate Bill 1030 will be amended to make a technical amendment to the state UC law that will avoid the cut-off of 13 weeks of federally funded Extended Benefits to 45,000 Pennsylvanians next week. The bill will also permit 90,000 other Pennsylvanians to qualify for EB through the end of 2011.

However, the compromise will also permanently cut UC eligibility in the future. Some of the provisions of the bill, while technical, will fall particularly hard on thousands of the most economically vulnerable workers in Pennsylvania. The bill will:

• Increase the amount of earnings needed for a “credit week” that qualifies workers for benefits from $50 now, to $100 in 2013, and to 16 times the minimum wage in 2015;

• Disqualify workers who have fewer than 18 credits weeks, beginning in 2015 (currently, workers with 16 or 17 credit weeks can get limited benefits);

• Limit the maximum number of weeks during which a worker can receive benefits to the number of his credit weeks, beginning in 2015 and affecting an estimated 75,000 workers per year (currently a worker with at least 18 credit weeks can receive benefits up to 26 weeks); and

• Increase the minimum benefit of $35 per week to $70 per week, beginning in 2013 (meaning that persons whose earnings calculations would result in a benefit below $70 will receive no benefit at all).

These changes will particularly harm low wage workers, because of their often unstable employment as well as their low wages.

Moreover, while this compromise is anticipated to cut more than $100 million per year of benefits, it does not solve the funding crisis of Pennsylvania’s UC system. Currently, Pennsylvania is more than $3.6 billion in debt to the federal government.

Pennsylvania’s unemployment compensation system is financed primarily through employer taxes on a “taxable wage base” of only the first $8,000 of each employee’s wages. This taxable wage base was last raised in 1984. According to the Pa. Department of Labor and Industry, if the taxable wage base had been increased since 1984 for cost of living, it would currently be at $21,500.

Sharon Dietrich, who heads the Community Legal Services employment law practice in Philadelphia, said, “Pennsylvania’s UC trust fund is insolvent because the system’s financing is broken. Too little revenue is coming into the system to fund the benefits needed by Pennsylvania’s unemployed. We are paying unemployment benefits based on 2011 wages, as we should, but we are taxing employers as though it is 1984.”

Dietrich continued, “Recently, the state legislature has looked at addressing the insolvency of the trust fund only by making huge benefit cuts on Pennsylvania’s unemployed. The unemployed did not get us into this mess and should not be the ones to get us out of it. It is time to increase the taxable wage base, both to pay down our federal debt and to make the system solvent for the future.”

Community Legal Services has represented the interests of low wage workers affected by Senate Bill 1030.

Press release issued by: Community Legal Services, Inc., 1424 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19102.

Media contact: Sharon Dietrich, CLS 215-981-3719 or sdietrich @ clsphila .org

Remarks of Cathy Carr at CLS Breakfast of Champions

June 8, 2011

CLS Breakfast of Champions
June 3, 2011

Good morning. I am Cathy Carr, Executive Director of Community Legal Services. Thank you for joining us today to support CLS, and to recognize this year’s Champions of Justice and Equal Justice awardees.

This is our 22nd Breakfast of Champions! We have honored more than 100 people over the years and many of our previous honorees are in the room. They are attorneys, paralegals, judges, elected officials, civic leaders, law firms, and funders. Every awardee over the years has shared a common goal – to make sure that poverty is not a barrier to equal justice.

This year, CLS celebrates our 45th anniversary of providing free legal services to Philadelphians who cannot afford to pay for the services of an attorney. And as we in this room all know, without a good lawyer, it can be very difficult to win a legal case. CLS provides excellent lawyers to the most vulnerable of Philadelphians and those lawyers make a huge difference. This year we served over 17,000 clients, and I want to share one example.

Harbee Johnson was among the last members of the 24th Infantry Regiment, the last segregated African American unit in the US Army. He served on the front-line as a sharpshooter in the Korean War, and during that service he suffered severe frostbite, requiring a month of hospitalization and causing a life-long disability.

Sixty years later, Mr. Johnson’s hands and feet are still disabled from the long term effects of cold injury and as a result, he has struggled financially. He applied to the Veterans Administration for Service Connected Disability Benefits, but was denied because he could not prove that his disability was caused by injuries suffered during his military service. He could not even prove that he served in a combat role. The reason is one that those of you who have handled VA cases probably know too well: a massive 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center, in St. Louis destroyed his service records, along with an estimated 16 million others.

After years of back and forth with the VA, Mr. Johnson contacted CLS, and attorney Pam Walz took on his appeal. Pam used Mr. Johnson’s remaining records and recollections to prove that he had indeed suffered severe frostbite while in combat, and won the benefits he had been denied: back-benefits totaling $150,000, plus an ongoing monthly benefit of $3,600. Now, finally receiving the benefits payments our government promises to service members injured in combat, Mr. Johnson can look toward a future beyond poverty for himself and his family.

Our work helps thousands of individuals like Mr. Johnson, and at the same time we tackle systems issues which affect thousands of Philadelphia’s poorest residents. Together with a wide range of partners, from community groups, to other advocates, to service providers and policy makers, we work to address the many causes of poverty itself and we can show concrete results.

We are working on hunger: our advocacy there has increased the access to nutrition programs and school meals for hungry families and children.

We are working on shelter: our advocacy there has increased protections to tenants living in buildings facing foreclosure, has made more loans available to families facing foreclosure of their own homes, and has kept utility subsidies paying for heat for the sick and indigent.

We are working on jobs: our advocacy there built a city stimulus funded program for the jobless.

We are working on health care: our litigation there got thousands of disabled and elderly the Medicare they were inappropriately denied.

We are working on preserving income for the unemployed: Our advocacy there has extended the number of weeks families receive unemployment benefits in this difficult recession.

Despite our recent successes, there is no question that this recession and the politics it has engendered have made it a very difficult time to advocate for the poor. Indeed from our vantage point, it feels the poor and unemployed are being expected to take a disproportionately large hit in the effort to balance budgets. The powerless are of course an easy target. And we predict that we will be losing in some of our efforts to help our clients in the coming months and years.

But our legal services programs can promise this on behalf of our client communities: at least if rights are taken away, if critical programs are cut, if poor people lose, it will not be done in silence. We will be there to make sure the struggles and the needs of the most vulnerable people in this city, state and country are a part of the public conversation, that it is not only the powerful who are heard.

Unfortunately our organization itself is feeling the brunt of the recession and government budget cuts this year. CLS avoided the bullet for awhile, and benefited from the old 2009 vision of how to end a recession: a variety of stimulus fund grants supported our work for the past two years. However, this year, like so many organizations, we face reductions in funding from both government and private sources, and must get smaller to survive. Fifteen wonderful productive staff members supported by stimulus fund are leaving us this summer. We will grit our teeth and take on the caseloads they leave behind. But even that step still leaves us with over a million dollar budget hole to fill for our coming year.

I assure you we will cope. We have done this before. We will downsize even more, doing layoffs because 87% of our expenses are for personnel so we have little choice, and we will be aggressive in seeking new revenues. We will look to new foundations and angle for cy pres awards. (So all you class action lawyers, think of us this year).

Of course the irony of our situation in this recession is that we are losing funds when our clients need us more than ever. The foreclosure crisis grinds on, employers still steal wages from low-income workers, scam artists are still bilking money from the poor, and inefficient bureaucracies still improperly deny benefits.

The bottom line is we need you, our reliable supporters more than ever. And you are coming through. As Barbara announced, thus far this year, 106 firms and businesses have given $377,200 to support CLS through the 2011 CLS Bar Campaign. Having over 100 firms and businesses donate is a milestone and we are on our way to a landmark year in total campaign receipts.

We have also seen the power of our supporters this year as we have moved forward on planning for a beautiful new building to house our North Philadelphia office. If you have not yet heard about this project, stay tuned and you will. We have successfully obtained over $4 million in state funds for the project and are on our way to kicking off a private fundraising campaign. The excitement and support for our building project has shown me how much people believe in our work and appreciate our excellence.

Every year it is extremely moving for me to see all the people in this room who join CLS and PLA in our struggle for justice for all. We are here to work towards a very basic piece of the vision of America. Each of us, and indeed every American, is trained in elementary school classes that justice is basic to our democracy. We learn to recite “liberty and justice for all” before we can understand the words. The goal of establishing justice is contained in the very first sentence of the Constitution. And yet this goal is not one that we can meet without constant effort and commitment. I have the luck, and the challenge, every day of working to make America’s vision of justice a reality for some of the weakest and poorest among us. I am so glad you stand with me and with CLS and PLA. I really believe that together we can push forward a new vision of justice for all, justice in the courtroom, and also in education, in health care, in employment, in immigration, and in housing. That is the work of CLS and PLA, that is the work that your contributions support, that is the work that we can do together.

Thank you all for coming this morning, thank you to all the volunteers who help us and the Trial Lawyers who sponsor this, and the law firms and individuals who contribute.