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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The Georgia Department of Human Services has long insisted that it's not making a concerted effort to deny benefits. (Walker departed in 2011, but the policies she instituted still largely remain in place.) Indeed, there's nothing in written state guidelines telling workers to turn applicants away. But many local and national welfare experts say that's not unexpected.

"I could never find anything from the state office—and you won't," says Liz Schott, a senior fellow with the D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities who has investigated welfare policies in several states. "I think they got the message, and they did anything, whatever they needed to do to make sure nobody got on."

One of these unwritten measures, says Smith, involved Zero candy bars. Senior state DHS officials handed out the candy bars to staff as a not-so-subtle reminder that the goal was to have no one receiving welfare. "That was the goal, workers were telling us. The message was 'zero TANF.' " (A DHS spokesperson says the state "has no information" on the distribution of candy bars by the department.)

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Georgia's welfare rolls plunged again after Walker's arrival, with more than 60 percent of those remaining dropping off welfare. Much of the drop was the result of people not being able to get through the front door: A study by Schott found that the share of welfare applications that were approved fell from 40 to 20 percent under Walker's tenure, and two-thirds of all denials were due to either withdrawal of applications or failure to complete application procedures.

As for getting Georgia’s poor back to work—the ostensible goal of welfare reform—the numbers are similarly unpromising. Georgia has bragged about its rising "work participation" rate—a key metric set down by Congress to ensure that states followed federal work rules by insisting that at least half of welfare recipients were engaged in "work activities," which can include anything from actual employment to an active search for a job. Yet the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that far fewer Georgians living in poverty were engaged in "work activities" under Walker; rather, the percentage was only up because the denominator—the number of people getting cash aid—had plummeted.

Asked if having barely one in 100 of the state’s poor receiving cash is an acceptable result, state TANF policy director Anne Carter replies, "I don't know that that's a yes-or-no question." The state always evaluates whether applicants are eligible under federal guidelines, she says, and "our withdrawal rate dictates whether they want to comply with the program, or they don't." She adds that the state offers job seekers help getting to job interviews, such as a new car battery or transit passes, and now lets them conduct job searches at home—provided, of course, that they have a computer with Internet access.

As for what's happened to the hundreds of thousands who've left welfare or never made it on, no one is quite sure: The state conducted its last "leaver study" of those departing the rolls in 2006—after that, explains Carter, the contractor retired and was never replaced. DHS figures indicate that 17.5 percent of applicants withdraw after a case is opened, but the agency doesn't compile statewide reports on how many find jobs—or on how many give up during the one-month waiting period before a case is opened. And even then, the findings were decidedly mixed: While about 70 percent of those who left welfare were employed during their first year after leaving TANF, more than 80 percent remained below the federal poverty level. The one thing that was helping Georgia’s poor, noted the study, was increased child care assistance that was approved by the state in 2005 to encourage people to leave TANF for employment—a program now imperiled by a lack of state funds.

Cassie, a single mom in the western Atlanta suburb of Austell, is one of those who have been turned away for child care assistance because the state ran out of money. After her partner skipped town when he learned their son had a chronic blood disorder—"He said, 'You're going to have to eventually send me to child support court, and when you do that I never want to see y'all again' "—Cassie found herself juggling shifts as a nursing aide while managing her son's frequent hospital visits. She applied for TANF, only to be forced to drop out of school for her degree as an ultrasound sonographer, she says, in order to have time for the grueling job search process.*

As her 2-year-old son scampers about a vacant office at the Sweetwater Valley Community Action Mission Program where she's come to seek some help, Cassie explains that—like nearly 2 million other Georgians, almost 20 percent of the state—she receives federal food stamp benefits, which help put groceries on the table. But they won't pay for non-food items, which is why she's turned up at this private charity in suburban Cobb County in search of diapers.

Household supplies are a constant struggle for the poor in the absence of cash benefits, notes the charity’s program director Carla Pierce, pointing to the stockpiles of detergent and other items lining the mission's storeroom shelves. (No diapers today, though; Cassie and her son go home empty-handed.) "Formula and diapers change a family budget in a second."