More than that, though, she says that conservatives in Georgia have “a genuine mistrust of the social welfare system, and a misunderstanding of how it operates,” where it's assumed that anyone requesting government aid must be a drug user or otherwise shiftless. This allows state ideologues, she says, to pit the needy against one another in what she calls a "sort of Hunger Games of the poor," where the working poor are encouraged to look upon welfare spending as a drain on their own finances. " 'I'm poor because you took my money'—that's the dynamic that they set up."
Georgia is hardly alone in its attempts to slash the already meager welfare rolls: Wyoming, Texas, and Idaho all boast welfare-to-poverty ratios below Georgia’s 7 percent. And the two states that exceed Georgia’s 19 percent poverty rate, Louisiana and Mississippi, are barely ahead of it in welfare rates, at 9 and 10 percent of families below the poverty line, respectively. Meanwhile, notes Schott, the national welfare expert, the past year has seen Ohio push people off welfare by imposing strict sanctions for violating any rules, while Washington booted off 6,000 people in one month by removing a time-limits exemption for those in good standing.
There are a handful of states that have bucked the trend. California and Maine both provide welfare benefits to more than 65 percent of their poor residents. Illinois, which saw a similar drop in welfare caseloads to Georgia’s during Walker’s tenure, recently eased waiting limits and other rules, seeing welfare applications climb as a result. And other states may apply for the Obama administration's offer of waivers to get out of strict work rules. Yet there's little hope of any of these measures taking root in states like Georgia. In fact, the state recently added a new hurdle: Pending a court challenge, welfare applicants will soon be forced to take a drug test within 48 hours of applying—for a $17, non-refundable fee.
It shouldn't be this way, says O'Neal, the young grandmother, as she prepares to file TANF paperwork yet again for her daughter, hopefully this time with a better result. “All of these people coming down here are not people just looking for handouts," she says. "You got a lot of people who have worked hard pretty much all their lives and have paid taxes. And now they're in need, and they can't get what they need. And it's so sad."
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
*Correction, Dec. 26, 2012: This article originally stated that Cassie was studying to be a ultrasound stenographer. She was studying to be an ultrasound sonographer.