Providers Testimony and Q and A

There is a significant array of providers who work to eradicate poverty and help men, women and children in need. To determine how government, private sector and non-profit service providers were addressing poverty issues, multiple providers were asked to provide input and expertise.

Philadelphia, McKeesport & Scranton – May 24, May 30 & July 15, 2019

Interviews with service providers were held in Philadelphia and Scranton to better understand the ways services were utilized to treat the many facets of poverty. The information sessions included a question and answer period. The questions and the providers’ responses are summarized for the purposes of the report.

Louise Hayes, Supervising Attorney, Welfare Unit, Community Legal Services, Philadelphia

Louise HayesLouise has been helping people navigate the government benefits system for her clients for 23 years. Community Legal Services (CLS), an organization providing free legal services to low-income individuals, represents thousands of clients each year in navigating the legal landscape of public benefits, foreclosures, evictions, utility shut-offs and employment barriers. Louise discussed several issues that are top priorities for CLS – based on their experience working with clients who are struggling to escape poverty.

Preservation of the General Assistance (GA) program was the first priority discussed. The program lent financial support in the form of a small monthly cash stipend to the most vulnerable Pennsylvanians with no other income supports, averaging $204 per month per individual. This included disabled people who were unable to work, people in domestic violence situations and people being treated for drug or alcohol addiction.

GA loans provided a lifeline for people who were waiting for their Social Security Disability payments to start. The funds enabled people to buy toiletries, pay medical co-payments or meet basic needs, such as purchasing weather-appropriate clothing.

Following the discussion with CLS in Philadelphia, the GA program was eliminated from the 2019-2020 state budget. Senate Democrats quickly introduced a plan to create a similar system, called the Emergency Relief Program. Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is considering a temporary restoration of the program following a lawsuit filed by CLS and Disability Rights Pennsylvania in July 2019 (Hughes, 2019).

CLS is also advocating for changes to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. These federal grant amounts have not been increased since 1990. The maximum grant amount for a family of three is $403 in most counties. As pointed out by CLS, this is not enough to pay market value rent on a one bedroom apartment in any of the state’s 67 counties. An increase would give parents greater flexibility in finding jobs that make sense for their families instead of hamstringing them into taking the first job they can find, often at lower pay.

CLS also urges the state Department of Human Services (DHS) to remove bureaucratic hurdles for poor families seeking access to TANF benefits. In 2016-17, only 28 percent of poor families with children in Pennsylvania received TANF, down from the “TANF-to-poverty ratio” of 87 percent in fiscal year 1995-96. DHS should provide more concerted outreach to eligible families not receiving benefits.

Also, CLS suggests DHS or the legislature create more generous “earned income disregards,” which would allow low-income families to retain more money from their paychecks. This may be an essential provision for addressing the so-called “benefits cliff.” Mothers receiving TANF lose 50 cents in benefits for every dollar they earn. Coupled with cuts to SNAP and increased child care costs, it is clear Pennsylvania needs to address the gaps in programming available to low-income families and individuals, so they have solid footing on the path to their own self-sufficiency.

With regards to TANF, CLS calls for an increase and rebalancing of TANF block grant funding. Right now, Pennsylvania spends the third highest among states on child care subsidies and pre-K from TANF block grant funds. While these are laudable programs, the TANF block grant has not been increased since 1996.

With child care subsidies available to people living at up to 235 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), individuals at the very bottom of the poverty ladder (23 percent FPL) are disproportionately inhibited from accessing cash assistance and welfare-to-work programs implemented specifically to target those in dire need. Pennsylvania should devote additional state funds specifically to child care assistance to help those in the most desperate echelons of the poverty index.

CLS recommends restoring funds that were cut from the welfare-to-work program so DHS’s case management redesign for TANF moms is properly implemented and does not hamper the department’s ability to sustain education and job training through CareerLinks.

Shore Shields, Allegheny County Department of Human Services

Shore discussed research on poverty in the county, its root causes and issues that men and women struggle with while striving for solid economic footing.

She said that community action is needed for a strong anti-poverty effort. Shore noted that a previous community needs assessment revealed three factors related to poverty: employment, housing and transportation. Shore said the minimum wage is too low and a skills gap prevents people from moving into different and better jobs. She said there are fast food jobs available, but they do not pay family-sustaining wages. Shore said low pay contributes to cycles of poverty.

She pointed to transportation as a significant hurdle for those struggling with poverty. She said rate increases, changes to the ConnectCard system, inconvenient scheduling and service shortfalls hampered upward economic mobility. Income thresholds for program eligibility were also cited as significant hurdles to better jobs, benefits and breaking free from government support systems.

United Neighborhood Centers of Northeastern Pennsylvania, Scranton

Senators John Blake and Art Haywood

Senators John Blake and Art Haywood

Senator John Blake joined Senator Haywood in a meeting with a dozen social service providers representing a broad array of services, including legal services, school-based programming, and medical services in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

The providers who participated were:

  • Attorney Peggy Engle, Managing Attorney, North Penn Legal Services
  • Meghan Loftus, MPA, President and CEO, Friends of the Poor
  • Lisa Durkin, President and CEO, United Neighborhood Centers of Northeastern Pennsylvania
  • Jessica Wallo, Vice President of Programs and Services, United Neighborhood Centers of Northeastern Pennsylvania
  • Maureen Maher-Gray, Executive Director, NEPA Youth Shelter Teen Center “HQ”
  • Karen Masters, Young Adult Program Manager, ResCare Workforce Services
  • Jeff Calaide, Admissions Counselor, Job Corps
  • Neola Lynott, EARN Program Supervisor, Pennsylvania CareerLink, Lackawanna County
  • Stephen R. Nocilla, Stephanie Miller, and Michael Kendra, Catholic Social Services
  • Lisa Fumanti Francis, Scranton Primary Health Care
  • Joseph H. Hollander, CEO, The Clinics at Scranton Primary Health Care Center


Questions & Answer Session

The providers discussed the many challenges of serving people impacted by poverty. A summary of the providers’ answers to specific questions follow:

What does poverty look like?

  • There is a very high percentage of single mothers trying to escape poverty;
  • Many people experiencing poverty are eligible for daycare subsidies, TANF programming and assistance, and housing subsidies;
  • People in poverty lack the funds to cover expenses, even when they can take advantage of programmatic assistance;
  • As people earn more, Medicare and Medicaid co-payments based on income make it difficult to take the next step out of poverty. This explains how income thresholds, or the “benefits cliff,” create an impediment to self-sufficiency;
  • Generally, 90 percent of clients in most programs are eligible for transitional cash when their income increases, amounting to $50 every two weeks for three months (roughly $300 total).

What are the greatest obstacles to overcoming poverty?

Housing is a significant concern:
  • Rents are being pushed upwards;
  • Two-bedroom rentals are roughly $700-800 per month in the Scranton area (Supplemental Security Income through Social Security only pays $771 per month
  • housing costs are consuming most of people’s only income source).
  • There are large waiting lists for both city and county public housing. Openings are rare
  • occurring only for a week or two every two years.
Workforce development and education is limited by access, availability and outside obstacles:
  • GED programs are hard to come by and lack space when they are found. Demand is greater than what the programs can provide;
  • More early supports are needed to stave off poverty as people enter adulthood;
  • Wage levels are low in most jobs that are available to those without training or education;
  • Warehouses in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area pay about $14-15 per hour, but people are unable to reach them because of transportation barriers;
  • Scranton is consistently one (1) percent above the statewide unemployment percentage;
  • 100,000 jobs are coming to a new industrial park in Wilkes-Barre in the near future, but transportation is a major impediment to reaching these higher-paying jobs;
  • JobCorps is an education and technical skills program for young people (ages 16 to 24) through the U.S. Department of Labor:
    •  JobCorps helps young people obtain drivers’ licenses and diplomas or GEDs and teaches skilled trades, such as nursing, carpentry and electrical work;
    • Students stay at JobCorps learning centers, but many fear losing benefits if they move out of their home;
    • It generally takes two years for students to stabilize their skill sets through the JobCorps program to have the greatest chance at finding success in the job market.
Transportation remains a significant hurdle:
  • Transportation was noted as perhaps the largest obstacle to overcoming poverty in the Scranton area;
  • Many people between 18- and 35-years-old are completely disconnected from school or work;
  • While there is a large shipping economy just outside the city, many people cannot access the jobs available due to lack of transportation options;
  • It is difficult to rely on public transit schedules in coordinating working hours;
  • There is a lack of coordination between county transit systems;
  • Many individuals who do not reside within a walkable distance to work are being charged exorbitant amounts of money to carpool with fellow employees (this is just one example of the way people in poverty are being taken advantage of because their lack of options is directly related to their financial status);
  • Some clients are spending over 20 percent of their already-limited income on transportation, providing yet another example of how expensive it is to be poor.
Health care remains an issue that must be dealt with effectively:
  • Health care providers for the low-income population are fighting the battle of preventative vs. emergency care. Oftentimes people wait until there is a medical problem to seek help;
  • Finding providers who will treat low-income patients is difficult because of the pay structure of services.

How do people get out of poverty?

  • Living in poverty creates many cyclical issues or “Catch 22s.” It is very expensive to be poor (those living in poverty pay more for transit, credit and many other items);
  • The “benefits cliff” is an impediment to self-sufficiency;
  • The “river of poverty” is overwhelming and social services can serve as lifeguards, but many people end up back in the service system after attempting to leave their supports;
  • Generally, those who succeed to make it out of poverty have very strong support systems that include not only social services, but family, friends, and community support;
  • Social service providers can educate clients on the effects of generational poverty and the need to effectively target responses to crisis situations;
  • Families dealing with generational poverty cycle through job after job, which becomes normalized over time;
  • Service providers help families understand the difference between something significant like losing a job and other circumstances that are more manageable.

What needs to change?

Providers lack administrative program flexibility in helping people pay bills through the programs they administer. For example, one provider noted that they can help clients pay water bills but there are no programs to help someone obtain emergency funds for car repairs. This makes it difficult for clients to prioritize what they need to pay;

More funding is needed to provide resources to address mental health challenges;

There are not enough offices and clinicians to help impoverished people with mental health needs, as well as a lack of housing and case management;

Wait lists for mental health services are anywhere from a couple weeks to a couple months, which is far from ideal when people are in crisis and need access to immediate intervention;

  • Challenges continue for the mentally ill, even when they find a stable mental health path;
  • Payments of housing and social determinant services through Medicaid needs to be addressed;
  • Wrap-around services should be included in health care payment eligibility under the program;

Juvenile justice system run-ins present difficult choices and outcomes for young people facing adjudication for criminal issues;

Youth homeless is a major concern, as HUD-funded housing for There is also a problem with students dropping out of school to pay rent:

  • Impediments to getting to school include a lack of transportation;
  • To qualify for JobCorps, young people cannot be on active probation, have open court cases pending or have more than $500 in fines;
  • In the Scranton School District, students are functionally illiterate as evidenced by the district’s zero percentating to reach standardized testing requirements for grades 5-12;

There are significant challenges among other populations within poverty:

  • Hispanic poverty rates are at about 50 percent in northeastern Pennsylvania;
  • There is an influx of individuals moving into the Scranton area from New York, Philadelphia and foreign countries, adding stress to available resources;
  • Language barriers present additional challenges to overcoming poverty among immigrant populations.

What happens after support systems fail?

Many individuals return to social service programs again and again when a path to self-sufficiency outside  government and other interventions becomes untenable.