Due to waning funds and growing caseloads, Utah's Department of Workforce Services temporarily will close the door to new General Assistance (GA) applicants next Wednesday, May 1.
The state-funded GA program provides a monthly payment for up to 12 months to low-income individuals and couples without children who are temporarily or permanently disabled and unable to work.
An individual who qualifies can receive $287 per month, a couple $398.
In a recent email to low-income advocates, Deputy Director Geoffrey Landward said that DWS "has reached the point where our allocated general fund dollars for the General Assistance Program are insufficient to meet increasing caseload demand."
How soon GA applications will be reinstated remains to be seen. DWS will revisit that question after the start of the 2014 fiscal year this July, said Nic Dunn, the department's public information officer.
According to Dunn, 75 percent of this year's $5.4 million GA fund already has been distributed to current clients.
State lawmakers allocated $4.8 million to the GA program for the current fiscal year that ends in July, and DWS combined it with about $600,000 in carryover funds from 2012.
"With the remaining chunk, we can maintain service to the people currently in the program," Dunn said. This March, DWS managed 1,072 GA cases up from 965 in January 2012 but not as high as 1,151 in May 2012.
The Legislature has also appropriated $4.8 million to GA for the new fiscal year, Dunn said.
Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City, said she vividly remembers appropriation discussions for GA during the 45-day legislative session that ended in mid-March.
"I asked if they needed extra funding, I would have supported that. But [DWS] said no," Robles said, adding that the population served by GA is vulnerable, and the monthly payments help with critical needs.
Some states have eliminated GA benefits altogether, and Robles voiced concerns about the program being used "as a place to find efficiencies."
Utah's low-income and disability advocates voiced strong concerns over the situation. Michael Bulson, a senior attorney with Utah Legal Services, labeled it "a huge hole in the safety net."
"It's going to make a lot of people's lives more difficult and will put more strain on other sources in the community," Bulson said.
People with disabling conditions who cannot work are often trying to acquire Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) benefits a process that can take two or more years. For them, GA benefits provide temporary and minimal relief.
Kyle Walker, client services director for the Utah State Office of Rehabilitation, said that GA benefits provide a small cushion that allows many of his clients to undergo the training and counseling needed to re-enter the workforce.
In 2012, his agency served 30,853 individuals who had disabilities ranging from mental illness to amputations, Walker said.
"I'm very concerned about this suspension it will affect our clientele in a negative way," Walker said. "Sometimes GA is everything that stands between someone being homeless or not homeless. And how do you supply vocational training if they're homeless?"
Kerry Steadman, community services manager for Salt Lake County, said that GA benefits are often used to help stabilize the chronically homeless people with disabling conditions who have been continuously homeless for more than a year or have experienced four bouts of homelessness in three years.
"I don't think we'll find this group rise up en masse to protest at the State Capitol," Steadman said. "So those of us who are advocates have to do our part to let people know that this is a hit to a small but important part of our population that as a society we have a responsibility to care for."