Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Georgia’s Hunger Games

The results have been that the rate of unemployment in Georgia has been higher than the national average every month for years.

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.

By Neil deMause|Posted Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2012

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.


"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.' "

[Note that many poor people don't have cars. And even if you do, going to 8 orientations in a week costs gas money and wear and tear on a car. And to do your job searches may require access to a computer.]

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."


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.


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.


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.


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."


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."


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."

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