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As cash-strapped states relentlessly slash spending on relief for people who fall outside the federal social safety net, a new group of "untouchables" is fast emerging, experts warn.

For decades, hundreds of thousands of people in dire straits -- mentally or physically disabled, homeless and unemployed, ineligible for federal welfare, disability or food subsidies -- could generally count on state or local governments for modest handouts of cash to help scrape by. Under the rubric of "general assistance," these down-and-out Americans received modest payments -- often no more than a few hundred dollars a month -- to help defray the cost of necessities including rent, food, clothing, toilet paper, aspirin, phone cards and bus tickets.

But in the midst of the worst recession of modern times and changing attitudes about the poor, many states have been gradually chipping away at general assistance programs or eliminating them altogether. Thirty states currently offer any form of general assistance -- down from 38 in 1989. And in late October, Washington state formally ended its "Disability Lifeline" program for an estimated 18,000 to 22,000 economically desperate residents.

That program once provided beneficiaries with as much as $339 a month to help cover the bare necessities of life, but that was cut to $197 a month in the past year, before the governor and state legislature zeroed out the program. What remains of general assistance in Washington includes new proposals for temporary medical treatment, modest housing vouchers, and aid to the elderly and blind and to pregnant women who have no other source of support. But even much of that assistance may never materialize as the state wrestles with its latest budget shortfall and the governor pushes for even deeper cuts, according to state officials.

Although precise figures are not available, states spend an estimated $3 billion to $4 billion every year on basic assistance to needy people, and a fraction of that goes for general cash assistance to people who don't qualify for other federal programs like food stamps. But even food stamps are not a slam dunk: If the congressional supercommittee fails to reach a minimum $1.2 trillion deal in three weeks, the ax will fall on domestic programs that help the poor.

"The reality is that people aren't going to be able to get their basic needs met and that is the bitter, unvarnished truth," Alison Eisinger, the executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness told The Fiscal Times. "And the result, we know, is going to mean more desperation, more fragmentation of households, more homelessness and higher costs for our community."

Tony Lee, the advocacy director for Solid Ground, a social-services agency in Seattle's King County, said many of those who have lost their general assistance support are part of what has become a throwaway class of people. Hanging on by a thread, many are now likely to end up on the streets or dumped into hospital emergency rooms, detoxification centers and jails.

"It really is a disastrous situation," Lee said. "General assistance was the ultimate safety net, and we're doing away with that -- we really shredded it."