How the State of Georgia Declared War on Its Poorest Citizens

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Dec. 26 2012 4:00 AM

Georgia’s Hunger Games

Fewer than 4,000 adults in the southern state receive welfare, even as poverty is soaring. How Georgia declared war on its poorest citizens—leaving them to fight for themselves.

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Beverly Walker, ex-commissioner of Georgia's Department of Human Resources
Beverly Walker, ex-commissioner of Georgia's Department of Human Resources

Photo from Georgia state website.

In Georgia, the number of Georgians receiving welfare had leveled off at about 54,000 families—roughly 30 percent of poor Georgians—by 2004. It was in that year that Gov. Sonny Perdue, the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, hired a new commissioner to head Georgia’s Department of Human Services. Beverly "B.J." Walker, a 54-year-old black woman from Chicago, had been an obscure school curriculum consultant best known as the wife of Chicago's airport commissioner when Republicans chose her to run a pilot project in 1995 to streamline state government services. Soon she rose to run Chicago’s welfare programs as well.

Walker quickly gained a reputation for a get-tough attitude toward welfare recipients that rivaled other states. "What B.J. emphasized was that everybody who can work, should work," says Joseph Antolin, who was an Illinois state welfare official when Walker arrived on the scene.

What that meant was that those who wouldn't work—or preferred, say, to go back to school to increase their chances of landing a good job—would be quickly pushed off the rolls. One of her first steps, Antolin recalls, was to shoot down plans to expand GED classes and vocational college courses for the poor. Her philosophy, he says, was “you essentially have to throw them in the pool and let them learn how to swim.” Thanks in part to Walker's influence, Illinois’ welfare rolls plunged from more than 200,000 in 1996 to 95,000 when she departed for a similar job in Chicago city government three years later.

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Once Walker arrived in Georgia, poverty experts there say she set out to overhaul the state’s TANF program with a single goal: not just getting people into jobs, but keeping them from getting benefits by any means necessary. New applicants soon found themselves being handed flyers emblazoned with slogans like "TANF is not good enough for any family," "TANF = work now," and "We believe welfare is not the best option for your family."

"Local offices were really taking a lot of steps to dissuade people from applying—or once they had applied, they were doing things to make the process really cumbersome and difficult," recalls Allison Smith of the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, whose office began documenting troubling reports of welfare applicants being discouraged from applying for benefits by any and all means necessary: "Making them go through 60 job searches a week, or come to 8 orientations." One woman in her seventh month of pregnancy was ordered to take a waitressing job that would require her to be on her feet all day. Another was told that if she applied for TANF while living in a shelter her children would be taken away. Smith recalls, "Some of the stuff that was said to individuals was pretty awful—'If you can't find a job, we'll have you shoveling shit at the dog pound.' "

"They were trying to make me feel bad that I was trying to get money," says Teresa of her experience applying for benefits. "They told me that taxpayers are paying for it—I used to pay my taxes, you know?" Kelda O'Neal, a young grandmother currently caring for an extended family of 15 in her DeKalb County home, had a similar experience. "They treat you like you're in a jail facility," she complains of her multiple trips to the DeKalb County welfare center to try to apply for benefits. "You really, really catch it trying to get TANF. I've heard women saying they can go and finally get a job, and before they can get that first pay, they cut 'em off."

O'Neal herself previously received TANF, she says, until her husband—a former truck driver who'd suffered a mental breakdown after his father died and one of his daughters was murdered—applied for disability benefits and was told that according to Georgia state law, he'd need to attend 60 to 90 days of a state work program while waiting for those benefits to arrive. She says that when he missed one of his appointments—among his many mental health issues, he suffers from agoraphobia—the state ended her $133 in monthly benefits.

Missed appointments are one common reason for rejected TANF applications in Georgia. Failure to meet state job search rules—which require 30 days of job search before a first check will be cut—is another. Teresa says she was told she'd have to file a record of 24 job applications a week in order to have her welfare application processed. "That was really hard, because I couldn't find any places that were hiring," she says. She was approved for benefits, but only so long as she performed 24 hours a week of community service, plus 12 hours of job search, which she struggled to do during the limited computer time available at the domestic violence shelter. Eventually, she had her benefits cut off for failing to properly record the phone numbers of her job contacts.

Teresa later landed a job at a Bi-Lo grocery store, and gave up on applying for government aid altogether. But many domestic violence survivors aren't so lucky, says Smith: "A lot of folks we know are staying in their abusive relationships longer, or returning. We know from research that financial concerns are probably the No. 1 reason why victims don't leave, or go back. Usually TANF will be a stepping stone, and now that it's going, people are having to make hard choices."

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