Pennsylvania at a crossroads – We must reforge our social compact

Our neighbors are in crisis. As state representatives, our offices are contacted by hundreds of desperate people and families every week. These are folks who, for the first time in their lives, find themselves trying to navigate a bureaucracy deliberately designed to make accessing benefits as difficult as possible. Folks who are discovering that merely owning your own vehicle or burial plot may make you ineligible for food assistance in an emergency, or that repeated staffing cuts can mean a 35-day wait for unemployment claims processing. 

This is not an accident. This is the natural and inevitable result of policies that put politics and profits over the well-being of people and families, that promotes the mythology of the idle welfare state while ignoring the reality and everyday suffering of those on the lowest rungs of our economic ladder. 

The only difference is that millions of us are now experiencing it.

We recognize and hear people’s frustrations, frustrations that run deeper and truer than memes shared on Facebook or political grandstanding on the floor of the state House. Their frustration is rooted in their daily battles – to make ends meet, to pay their bills, to put food on the table. It’s rooted in having to rely on assistance programs that are broken, which cannot meet demand, and which offer token assistance or deny benefits because they reflect a family’s situation six months ago as opposed to the desperate reality of now.

Much of that frustration is being directed at the state agencies that manage these programs – and while some of it is deserved, we argue that the lions’ share should rest with the legislators and policy makers who have consistently voted to defund these programs, who voted to make asset tests more stringent, who voted to enact work requirements and create other onerous regulatory barriers in the hope that those seeking benefits under normal conditions would just give up, would simply go away.

We live in a commonwealth – a society that is supposed to exist for the common good, with a government that is supposed to look out for the health, safety and welfare of the people. And we are failing to live up to that.

Stopping the spread of the coronavirus, supporting our frontline workers, preparing to reopen and rebuild our state while addressing the dire needs of families and individuals are not and should not be mutually exclusive goals. Yes, we face an unprecedented challenge. And yet, with every challenge comes an opportunity -- an opportunity to fix past mistakes, to address systemic problems and to reforge our social compact.

We must, in the words of Dr. King, feel the fierce urgency of now. We cannot give into despair or the soft lie that these problems are inescapable, that there is nothing that we can do, or that we, the wealthiest nation on the Earth, cannot take basic steps to show comfort to those in their most desperate moments.

We can promote policies to protect and pay essential workers. We can fund the unemployment system to hire more claims adjudicators. We can expand our utility assistance programs. We can expand childcare so that when Pennsylvania goes back to work, working families aren’t left behind. We can improve healthcare access so every Pennsylvanian can get the care and medication they need. And we can stabilize housing during times of crisis, so families have homes to shelter in.

Or, we can demonstrate that we’ve learned nothing from the legacy of the last Great Recession. We could continue to cut our social programs, create regulatory barriers and punish desperate families asking for help.

The choice is ours.

Reps. Austin Davis and Sara Innamorato