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.

A soup kitchen line
A soup kitchen line

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

When the economy crashed in 2008, millions of Americans lost their jobs. Applications for food stamps soared. So did attendance at emergency food providers—soup kitchens and food pantries—that help the estimated 50 million people, working and non-working, who can't afford enough groceries to get through the month.

Unlike in past economic downturns, though, the welfare rolls barely budged. Where 15 years ago 68 percent of poor Americans received cash via Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (as welfare was officially renamed in 1996), today only 27 percent of Americans with incomes low enough to qualify for cash benefits receive them. As the New York Times' Jason DeParle discussed in a front-page article earlier this year, the resulting welfare gap has left at least 4 million families with neither jobs nor cash aid.

The size of the welfare gap, however, varies widely from state to state. In states like California and Maine, which have focused on getting their poor citizens into jobs programs, about two-thirds of those eligible still receive welfare. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Georgia, which over the past decade has set itself up as the poster child for the ongoing war on welfare. Even as unemployment has soared to 9 percent and 300,000 Georgia families now live below the poverty line—50 percent higher than in 2000, for a poverty rate that now ranks sixth in the nation—the number receiving cash benefits has all but evaporated: Only a little over 19,000 families receiving TANF remain, all but 3,400 of which were cases involving children only. That's less than 7 percent, making Georgia one of the toughest places in the nation to get welfare assistance.

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What's Georgia's secret? According to government documents, interviews with poor Georgians, and those who work with them, it's a simple one: Combine an all-Republican state government out to make a name for itself as tough on freeloaders; a state welfare commissioner so zealous about slashing the rolls that workers say she handed out Zero candy bars to emphasize her goal of zero welfare; and federal rules that, regardless of who's in the White House, give states the leeway to use the 1996 law's requirement for "work activities"—the same provision that Republicans have charged President Obama wants to unfairly water down—to slam the door in the face of the state's neediest.

What this has created is a land that welfare forgot, where a collection of private charities struggle to fill the resulting holes. For the Atlanta Community Food Bank, that means sending out more than 3 million pounds of canned goods, bread, and other groceries each month to churches in and around Atlanta to help feed the state's growing number of poor and near-poor. The food bank’s staff also helps arrange for free tax prep services, and helps the city’s poor apply for food stamps and Medicaid. One thing they don't discuss, though, is welfare. "We don't talk about TANF anymore," says food bank advocacy and education director Laura Lester. "We don't even send anybody in to apply, because there's just no point."

It's a state of affairs that's left an increasing number of Georgians with nowhere to turn. Teresa, a single mom of a 2-year-old living in a domestic violence shelter, tells of how she broke down and applied for cash benefits after fleeing an abusive relationship—only to be chastised by state welfare officers who asked, "Wouldn't you rather work?" Eventually, Teresa says, "I was sitting there crying—I just didn't know what else to do. I said, you've gone from letting people sit on their butt and collect money to the very opposite of that."

Ultimately, it didn’t matter. In the end, she was rejected for failing to fill out her paperwork correctly.

*    *    *

One of the common misconceptions about welfare reform is that once Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton had settled their grand bargain back in 1996, a new regime was put in place: If you won't work (or at least look for work), you'll no longer get a government check. In fact, though, welfare reform is less a single law than 50 separate experiments, as Washington provided states with a broad framework under which they are free to set their own rules on time limits, grant levels, and work requirements for those seeking help.

Immediately after the new law was put in place, the welfare rolls plunged by two-thirds—though no one could say for certain whether this was because people were leaving the rolls for jobs or merely sinking deeper into poverty. And though the slide eased a bit nationally after the economy cooled around 2001, the welfare gap—the number of people poor enough to receive benefits who weren’t actually getting them—still amounted to nearly two-thirds of those below the poverty line.

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.

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."

*    *    *

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.)

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."

Even for those lucky few who do manage to receive TANF, the increasingly meager grant levels—which haven't been raised in Georgia since 1996, leading to a 30 percent drop in spending power relative to inflation—are hardly meeting people’s most basic needs."Two hundred and thirty-five dollars, what the hell is that supposed to pay?" wonders Renea Buck, a Savannah grandmother caring for her daughter's two children. Buck recently fought her way onto TANF with the help of a local antipoverty group, Step Up Savannah. "I see these people on TV, and they say people are just living off the welfare system. There might be a lot of people on food stamps because they need help. And they might have Medicaid so their kids can have medical. But they're crazy if anybody's milking the damn system for that $235 a month."

Private aid groups like the Community Action Mission Program have tried to fill the gap with "emergency aid"—basically a private welfare grant for those below 125 percent of the poverty line—but in a county that features 16 percent unemployment and where 1,600 schoolkids are homeless, they now turn away half of all applicants, says Pierce. The number of people coming to her organization for help has tripled in the last five years, she notes.

"These days, it seems like almost everyone needs financial aid for either rent or other expenses," Pierce sighs. "Everyone who walks through that door has a legitimate emergency.”

*    *    *

Despite its dwindling welfare rolls, the state of Georgia is still allotted $330 million a year in federal money via the TANF block grant program. But there are signs that less and less of it actually makes it to the state’s poor.

Instead, according to a September 2012 study by the nonprofit Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, the state has found ways to use TANF money to paper over other program budgets, with more than half of Georgia's welfare funds being siphoned off to pay for the state's unrelated child welfare program. This maneuver, which is allowed under federal law, has effectively saved the state hundreds of millions of dollars that it would otherwise have to cover with tax revenues.

"There was all this extra federal money sitting around," explains Clare Richie, a policy analyst at the institute, "so it was easy to use that to fill other holes." (A state DHS spokesperson responded that because TANF is a federal block grant, "this allows state policymakers to use TANF funds in ways that fit both Georgia's program needs and the different needs of other states.")

To ensure that states didn't just cash their federal TANF checks without spending anything on the poor, Congress added another requirement, the so-called "maintenance of effort" requirements that would cut funds to states that didn't devote enough money to anti-poverty programs. Earlier this year, a study by the federal General Accountability Office revealed that Georgia was counting private spending by nonprofit food banks and similar private charities to account for nearly half of the state's own required welfare spending targets—more than double the percentage of almost any other state.

According to poverty experts, the way that the 1996 law changed the mechanics of federal welfare spending is a big reason why many states have been generous with food stamps—Georgia recently began allowing residents to apply for food aid online, with only a telephone verification interview—while cracking down on cash assistance. Food stamps remain a federal entitlement, meaning if more people in your state get food stamps, Washington foots the bill. But if more people get TANF, that comes out of a flat amount of federal cash that your state gets to help those in need—creating a huge incentive to slash the rolls and siphon off the money for other uses.

It's a form of creative bookkeeping, says Democratic state representative and minority leader Stacey Abrams, that's especially alluring to a state like Georgia, which features not just a Republican-controlled state house and governor's office but an exceptionally high number of state leaders who belong to the American Legislative Exchange Council, the conservative policy group that has recently attracted attention for drafting hundreds of bills on behalf of corporate lobbyists. Georgia, she says, was a perfect match for those looking to eliminate the welfare rolls, along with a Republican-controlled legislature that takes its cues from an interest group like ALEC—"We have become a laboratory for their policies."

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.

Neil deMause is co-author of the book Field of Schemesand runs the stadium-news site fieldofschemes.com.

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