Anthony Lomax, a 63-year-old North Philadelphian, has no teeth thanks to the state of Pennsylvania.
A survivor of prostate, kidney and rectal cancer, Lomax was diagnosed with gum disease and underwent dental surgery in the fall. He needed only partial dentures, he says, but he was informed the state would cover only complete sets. So, in preparation, he had all his teeth removed.
Last week, Lomax's dentist called with bad news: "Welfare says they can't pay for that."
That's because, among new Medicaid rules implemented by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, was one that Lomax, who had gotten dentures before, had never heard of: a limit of one pair of dentures per lifetime, per beneficiary. Lomax, retired from working in the copy room at a Center City architectural firm, can only hope his new dentures will be covered on appeal. In the meantime, eating is a challenge.
Lomax is far from alone. City Paper has learned that cuts implemented under Corbett have had a far deeper impact on almost every service the state provides to Philadelphians — including education; health care for the poor and disabled; welfare; food stamps; and support services for victims of domestic violence, the disabled and the homeless — than has previously been reported. It's all part of the ideologically driven agenda Corbett outlined in his campaign, and he has delivered: slashing expenditures with little apparent regard for the plight of the poor, or for Philadelphia's threadbare safety nets and crumbling school system.
More pain is on the way. On Tuesday, Corbett proposed a new budget for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2012: a 30 percent cut to publicly supported universities like Temple, a 20 percent cut to a set of safety-net programs — and no new taxes. The City of Philadelphia will receive an estimated $42 million in cuts to public welfare programs, many of which are being consolidated into a new and perplexing block-grant program.
"The cuts the governor has proposed for the Department of Public Welfare (DPW) are extreme, targeted and painful," says Donald Schwarz, Philadelphia's Deputy Mayor for Health and Opportunity. "Philadelphia will do all it can to blunt these effects, but given the city's fiscal situation and the magnitude of the estimated cuts ... there's not much we can do."
Corbett's office declined an interview.
The proposed new cuts come on top of last year's state budget, which cut $1 billion from education and trimmed $400 million from public welfare spending — and follow another $156 million across-the-board midyear cut implemented in January. The state cuts are exacerbated by underfunded pensions due, in part, to the Wall Street crash, and matched by severe federal austerity: A stimulus package — too small to bandage the gaping hole inflicted by the recession — has largely run out, and Republicans in Washington, dead set against spending, cut urban aid.
Here in Pennsylvania, Corbett has accomplished an impressive feat in carrying out his own austerity program, appealing to his party's conservative base without energizing a left-leaning opposition. A career prosecutor with a one-time reputation as a political moderate, Corbett joined much of his party nationwide in moving rightward during the 2010 primary, when he faced a challenge from state representative and Tea Party favorite Sam Rohrer.
On Feb. 2, 2010, Corbett signed a pledge to powerful Washington anti-tax activist Grover Norquist to "oppose and veto any and all efforts to increase taxes."
He went on to promote that pledge during the general election. Corbett's first television advertisement, released in August 2010, attacked Democratic candidate Dan Onorato, embraced the Norquist pledge and denounced "Harrisburg's reckless spending and high taxes."
Corbett has kept his word to Norquist — at least superficially. Pennsylvania remains the only major natural-gas-producing state without an extraction fee on the industry. Though Corbett has warmed to the idea of a local "impact fee" under growing bipartisan pressure, it would send minimal funds to state coffers and do little to offset spending cuts. Some on the right oppose any levy on the industry — Norquist has suggested that Corbett's proposed fee violates the tax pledge — but most see it as inevitable. Even Norquist wasn't that angry: He has touted Corbett as a possible vice presidential candidate.
Corbett has outsmarted and demobilized the left, placating powerful public-employee unions by signing a four-year contract in 2011 and backing down from his initial call for a cut in wages. He learned a lesson from Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whose anti-union stance prompted a mass occupation of the state capital and, now, a lively recall campaign.
Though Corbett's political agenda is sometimes described as frustrated — conservative priorities, like school voucher legislation and a measure requiring voters to present government identification (and thus suppress the vote among minorities, students and the poor), have so far failed to win legislative approval — what Corbett has undone has had a far greater impact than anything he has created.
"I think the results were outstanding ... from a conservative point of view," said Pennsylvania Manufacturers' Association chief executive Fred Anton after last July's budget. "And from the business point of view they were outstanding. ... I think there was a tremendous advantage to the lack of [the type of] drama that has occurred in other states."
Two years ago, groups of African-American students assaulted their Asian-American classmates at South Philadelphia High School, again and again, over the course of a December school day. The incident sparked protests against Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's in turn tepid and victim-blaming response. And it served as another example of how incapable the resource-starved Philadelphia School District is of dealing with the tremendous educational and social needs of its student body, 80 percent of whom are "economically disadvantaged."
After Asian-American students staged a strike and the national news media descended on Broad and Snyder, Otis Hackney, a well-regarded administrator, took over as principal in 2010. He quickly earned support throughout the school. Yet by August 2011, Hackney's already small budget was cut again. There are now fewer teachers and larger classes than when the violence broke out two years ago.
South Philly High's loss of more than $1.5 million in funding was typical of school cuts throughout the Philadelphia School District, though the school was spared during a recent layoff of 90 school police officers. At schools throughout the city, 43 bilingual counseling assistants who work with immigrant students, and whom advocates say are crucial to preventing future violence, have also been cut.
All told, the district must cut $61 million by June, and there is an expected $269 million gap in next year's budget. Last summer's cuts led to the elimination of 3,800 teacher and staff positions, including 1,300 layoffs.
The culpability of an inept district administration in causing, and failing to plan for, the current fiscal year's initial $629 million shortfall cannot be understated — and indeed, Corbett blames districts for depending on federal stimulus funds they knew would run out.
But the loss of nearly $300 million in state funding to the district, combined with the loss of stimulus dollars, has pushed Philadelphia schools into profound crisis.
"It's an absolute, bottom-of-the-barrel, worst-case scenario for the School District of Philadelphia," says Parents United activist Helen Gym.
And the two factors — state neglect and district mismanagement — are actually one and the same: The commonwealth has been in charge of Philly schools since a 2001 takeover.