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.
"What I see here is a dismantling of the public school system," Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ District 1201 president George Ricchezza, whose 2,700 members have all received layoff notices, told the Inquirer. What he's experiencing goes beyond the standard contract negotiation. This time, the entirety of the school district's unionized blue-collar workforce — janitors, aides, maintenance — may well be fired, and their jobs outsourced, if the two sides fail to agree on contract givebacks.
School districts statewide are deep in the red. Just south of Philadelphia, the Chester Upland School District is a laboratory for state government abandonment. The district does not have the money to cover next month's paychecks, and Corbett has resisted calls to help the district meet its pressing financial obligations, even though the state ran the district from 1994 to 2010.
"They talk about not wanting to harm job creation in the Marcellus Shale industry with a tax, but their decision to slash education funding from pre-kindergarten through college is the biggest job killer I have seen in my 27 years in Harrisburg," says state Rep. Babette Josephs, a Philadelphia Democrat.
And while Corbett maintains a tough-on-taxes reputation, the tax burden has in reality shifted to the local level — making funding between rich and poor districts all the more unequal.
"It's a pretty simple equation: Less state assistance means a higher burden in terms of local property taxes," says Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials executive director Jay Himes.
Last year, Philadelphia raised property taxes 3.85 percent to contribute to the delivery of an estimated — but uncertain — $53 million to city schools. Statewide, an estimated 27 percent of districts have raised property taxes higher than the rate state law normally allows.
But the legislature might have a declining appetite for education cuts.
"Moderates should be feeling the heat from their constituents considering the budget cuts last year," says Karen Beyer, a former state representative and moderate Republican defeated in the 2010 primary by a 23-year-old Tea Party-backed candidate.
School vouchers, if enacted as Corbett hopes, would further drain funding from traditional public schools. And Corbett continues to advocate for the privatization of state-supported universities like Temple and Penn State.
"Corbett, I don't know if he looks down on the lower class, but it's not really his concern. He's screwing over our generation," says Kareem Singleton, a 19-year-old from University City.
Accepted to Penn State's flagship in State College, Singleton was unable to attend because of tuition increases, and now studies at the Abington campus, where tuition is less. In 2011, Corbett proposed a 50 percent cut to higher education, which the legislature decreased to a 19 percent reduction: Temple's annual tuition increased by $1,172, Penn State's by $712. This year's proposed budget includes a $42 million cut to Temple, $64 million to Penn State.
A 21-year-old senior at Temple, Francesca Rouzard is struggling to cover costs with loans, grants and a part-time job. "I don't have parents to pay for school," she says. "With the tuition increase, that money doesn't meet the need."
She says friends have considered transferring, and others have dropped out.
"The legislature and governor, and particularly this governor, want to defund higher education and privatize it," says Art Hochner, president of Temple's faculty union. "If the state ultimately stops funding these institutions, tuition would rise considerably." Because of the midyear cuts, Temple may have to find $7 million more in savings by summer.
Of course, not everyone uses Philly public schools or state universities, but the social costs of bad schools — crime rates, lost lives and sky-high spending on prisons and policing — are paid by all.
Joshua Glenn, 23, of West Philadelphia, says he's a case in point. "I needed to get money, so I chose to sell drugs. I didn't have guidance," he says. He spent 18 months in prison after being charged as an adult for aggravated assault at age 16. "The schools aren't really involved with young people. They don't have the right resources in schools to help young people with their problems."
Charges were later dismissed, and Glenn now works for Youth Art & Self-empowerment Project (YASP).
Romeeka Williams, 19, also found herself lost in the Philly school system. After she transferred from a school in the Poconos, where she did extracurricular activities like choir and culinary arts, she found University City High School to be a shock. Williams says the environment was more conducive to trouble than learning — and she found trouble, including, eventually a murder charge. It "was so packed. They have gang wars. The teachers didn't used to teach us much because there were so many people. They can't get everybody. And we had to share books." The murder charge was eventually dropped; Williams, now on probation, is working at YASP.
"Imagine now, after the cuts?" says Glenn. "The amount of money they're putting into the urban school system wasn't right before the cuts."
Yet prison spending keeps growing. Although in 2009 the number of state prisoners nationwide declined for the first time in 38 years, Pennsylvania's prison population grew by 2,122 people (4.3 percent) — more than in any other state, according to a Pew Center on the States study. And a study released last month by Pew and the Vera Institute of Justice found Pennsylvania actually spends a minimum of $2.1 billion on prisons, $463.8 million more than is generally reported.
In January, the state legislature passed a measure proclaiming 2012 "The Year of the Bible," asserting the "national need to study and apply the teachings" of the "word of God." This effort to establish Christianity as the official state religion could be interpreted as the most recent fundamentalist maneuver in the "culture wars" against homosexuality, abortion and contraception. A recently approved law regulating clinics will raise the cost of abortions, while another bill in progress could restrict insurance coverage of them. Though the Corbett administration's social and economic philosophies are at times contradictory — for example, a recent study suggests that the lack of medical insurance is a significant cause of unintended pregnancies, 40 percent of which end in abortion — they are also deeply intertwined.
Last month, the Inquirer revealed that Robert W. Patterson, a top Department of Public Welfare adviser, also edits a fundamentalist Christian journal that blames abortion, contraception and welfare for black American poverty. Patterson called the anti-poverty programs of Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society "more of a quagmire than Vietnam ever was."
Which is even more cause for concern, given that DPW has been granted special power to carry out its faith-based attack on the safety net. That leeway derives from Act 22, an extraordinary measure that received less media attention than the Bible proclamation. Approved on June 29, 2011, Act 22 enabled DPW to make changes to eligibility or benefits with no legislative or public input or oversight.
The Pennsylvania Bar Association called the measure "an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power to the administrative branch." DPW used this authority, most recently, to disallow the distribution of food stamps to people with assets in excess of $2,000 ($3,250 for the elderly and disabled), excluding homes and first cars. They backtracked under a firestorm of criticism, and raised the asset limits to $5,500 and $9,000.
DPW also used Act 22 to introduce co-pays for subsidized child care and to limit Medicaid coverage — including that virtually unreported provision limiting recipients to one pair of dentures.
Corbett has put off politically awkward issues like a natural-gas tax and transportation funding by forming stakeholder commissions. When it comes to the state's safety net, however, his administration implements unilateral and drastic changes — at a time when hundreds of thousands of newly out-of-work Pennsylvanians are signing up for food stamps and Medicaid.
Last year, more than half a million Philadelphians received Medicaid; the number was 2,202,274 statewide, up 318,640 since 2007. The number of people relying on food stamps grew by 603,804 over those same five years, reaching 1,725,606 statewide, including nearly half a million in Philadelphia.
A February 2011 United Way survey of Pennsylvania service providers found they had seen a 51 percent increase in first-time clients.
"Service delivery is at a rock-bottom level," says United Way of Pennsylvania president Tony Ross. "The social safety net is really being stretched to the breaking point."
The net has already snapped at the welfare office near North Broad and Indiana, a bunker-like structure surrounded by a fenced-in parking lot just two blocks from a mural of Roxanne Jones, the first African-American woman in the Pennsylvania Senate, a militant welfare-rights organizer and a former welfare recipient herself.
The beleaguered Ridge/Tioga North Philadelphia County Assistance Office, like other welfare offices that provide food stamps, Medicaid and cash assistance, is now in serious crisis.
Making matters worse, Corbett's proposed budget will raise Medicaid eligibility requirements and eliminate the General Assistance Program, which provides cash assistance to nearly 68,000 disabled adults, domestic violence survivors, children in the care of nonrelatives and others. Says Pennsylvania Sen. Shirley Kitchen, "I think it's really a knockout punch for people who are really the most vulnerable in our society."
Valerie Bowens, 58, cares for her 84-year-old mother in North Philadelphia. She spends a lot of time at the Ridge/Tioga County Assistance Office, which has lost her documents and then erroneously threatened to cut her benefits at least three times — and that was before the recent cuts.
"I don't know if you've ever seen the movie Groundhog Day?" asks Bowens, who, like others interviewed for this story, says that no one ever picks up the phone at the office and messages are not returned. In-person visits to the office are necessary, and often include half-day waits.
Bowens has a severe heart condition and diabetes, but has worked most of her life. She is now a full-time student at the Community College of Philadelphia, and last semester — her first — earned a 4.0. Yet, when she requested a monthly transit pass to get to school, welfare staff told her — again, erroneously — that they would cut off her food stamps because she is a student. They didn't, but Bowens is now afraid to return to the welfare office: Her benefits, she fears, might get improperly cut by the overworked staff.
"You're already injured when you have to be there," she says. "But then the insult."
Take Cassie, 51, found smoking a cigarette outside the welfare office. Laid off from her job in 2010, she has been unable to find work. Now she's unsure whether she'll get assistance. Inside the office, the waiting room is packed. "I'm here applying for welfare, food stamps and medical assistance, because all of my unemployment insurance is expired," she says.
If she doesn't get called for an interview in the next hour and a half, she will have to leave — and go pay an electricity bill. She filled out an online application, and for weeks it was "pending." When Cassie called the state, they told her that she would need to come in for an interview. She wonders whether anyone planned on telling her. "What was the purpose of doing it online?"
In the meantime, her job search has been extensive, she says. But she recently lost a tooth and can't fix it without health insurance. Getting a job with a tooth missing is hard.
Luisa Morales, 73, has visited the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program office across the hall five times over the past month, attempting to prove her eligibility. She says after every visit, she must wait 48 hours to learn if she's approved. Each time, she returns with more documents.
"It's tremendous," says the Puerto Rico native, eager to heat her home. "It wasn't like this last year."
The state has also implemented major cuts to programs that help people in danger of losing their homes to foreclosure. And for those who lose their homes, funds to assist the homeless have also been cut, as has funding to shelter women who flee their homes because of domestic violence.
Even more extraordinary: Since August, DPW has quietly kicked 88,000 Pennsylvania children off Medicaid. Workers blame a directive from Harrisburg that required them to review a backlog of documents in a matter of weeks. Basic due diligence like checking to make sure that mail was going to a current address did not happen. The number of adults removed cannot be determined because the state recently changed its accounting method, a move that advocates call suspicious.
The Medicaid breakdown comes on the heels of the Corbett administration's termination of the adultBasic health-care program, which covered 42,000 low-income Pennsylvanians ineligible for Medicaid. The Medicaid chaos extends to every corner of the city, affecting people of all classes.
Among those affected is Deborah Goldberg's 4-year-old daughter, who has cerebral palsy. Goldberg had applied for Medicaid last summer and received a letter in September saying that her daughter had been approved. But then the office that had just made her daughter's new braces called back: They needed a $2,700 payment. Her daughter wasn't showing up as covered under Medicaid.
No one picked up the phone, so she had to visit the welfare office in South Philadelphia last Thursday, arriving at 1 p.m. and leaving four hours later with the news that she would have to reapply from scratch. Worse yet, she will likely have to pay the $2,700 out-of-pocket, along with a hospital bill she estimates will come to $7,000 — plus more money for an upcoming surgery.
Goldberg graduated from Penn and works as a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company. Her husband is a doctor, and the couple lives in Rittenhouse Square. But their employee health insurance does not cover many of their daughter's intense and critical needs. "I'm going to be paying astronomical credit card bills," she says. Goldberg doesn't blame DPW employees. "They wanted to help, but didn't have the tools or resources to do it," she says.
Karmella Sams, 48, is vice chair of SEIU Local 668 Chapter 12. She works on the other side of the desk at Ridge/Tioga, and struggles to help a flood of clients. "We lost a lot of staff based on the cuts. The clients have longer waits, longer times for us to establish eligibility for their benefits. We have so many people coming in now because of the economy."
Her center hasn't seen layoffs, but vacant positions aren't being filled. "We see a lot of people come in every day. There are a lot of people that would probably qualify for the job that I do, you do, and a lot of us do," she says.
Indeed, Sams found her job five years ago when she came in to apply for benefits after getting laid off. Those well-paying public-sector union jobs have played a crucial role in lifting the fortunes of black women like Sams — and they are now less available to her neighbors in North Philadelphia.
Sams says that the police have been making more visits to deal with incidents at the center, sometimes violent. "A lot of things evolve in the office based on people waiting. People's frustrations — we've had a few incidents."
In November, DPW implemented a 6 percent cut in payments to agencies that provide services to people with intellectual disabilities.
There have been previous cuts, says Kathleen Brown McHale, president of Special People In Northeast (SPIN). But the current austerity is "absolutely unprecedented. ODP [Office of Developmental Programs] and DPW seem to be oblivious to this."
SPIN has lost $1.9 million and, like other agencies, has had to turn prospective clients away. There are nearly 16,000 people statewide on the waiting list for these services, including 2,930 in Philadelphia. A survey of 27 Philly-area providers of services to people with intellectual disabilities found agencies projected $35 million in state cuts for the current fiscal year — and the survey did not include projections from one of the area's largest agencies.
Mitchell Gaskins, a 32-year-old with intellectual disabilities who lives in a Northeast Philly group home, was able to find a job at PennDOT with SPIN's help. But now, there is a long waiting list for the services that allow Gaskins and others to live in the community. Without that support, there is a fear that more people with intellectual disabilities will be institutionalized.
"I don't want to be put in [an] institution with bad people," says SPIN client Laurie Copestick, 42. "It's scary."
Funding for the job counseling that helped Gaskins and others find work has also been cut. "That's a shame," says Copestick. "You shouldn't make them sit at home because they don't have services."
Gaskins, Copestick and other SPIN clients have become activists. They've rallied in Harrisburg, met with legislators and helped convince the state to remove the word "retarded" from government documents.
"I don't think everybody wants to go backward," says Barbara Romanisky, 52. "SPIN gave my life back."
"The money may go away," says United Way's Ross. "But the people don't go away."
NOTE: An earlier version of this article failed to note that Karmella Sams was speaking in her capacity as vice chair of SEIU Local 668 Chapter 12, not as a government employee.