Georgia is seeing a significant decrease in the number of people receiving food stamps as the improving economy lifts many recipients into new jobs and frees them from the fear of going hungry.
The number of Georgians getting food stamps has dropped by 300,000 from 1.9 million in April 2013 to 1.6 million. That decrease of 16 percent in the federally funded program saves taxpayers tens of millions of dollars monthly.
That may sound great, but it’s also fueling a passionate debate about which people should get food stamps and for how long. Here in Georgia, unemployment has dropped to pre-recession levels. But Georgia’s food stamp program, despite the decrease, would have to lose another 692,115 people to reach its 2007 level of participation.
The fact that food stamp use has remained relatively high, while the economy has largely rebounded from the recession, makes some believe that many food stamp recipients are taking advantage of the system.
That accusation is shaping policy from the state Capitol to the White House. President Donald Trump has targeted the program for billions of dollars in cuts, and Georgia is expanding work requirements for some recipients.
State Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, said food stamps rightly serve vulnerable people - especially children and elderly - but that it’s time to crack down on able-bodied people milking the system.
“I think there’s a lot of fraud with food stamps,” Unterman said. “There’s a history of a lot of waste in our program.”
She’s seen it herself. She pointed to the underground market in which people illegally sell food stamps for cash, weapons and drugs. One time, when she was in a Kroger supermarket, Unterman said a woman offered to pay for her groceries with her food stamp card if she gave the woman a little cash.
Those on the political left say the prevalence of such stories is overstated. Food stamps never made anybody rich, said Charles Bliss, director of advocacy with Atlanta Legal Aid. The most assistance an adult with no kids can receive is $194 a month.
“I think in the U.S. we want to make sure everyone has enough to eat,” Bliss said. “Nobody’s living the high life on $194 a month.”
Trump targets food stamps
President Donald Trump has painted a big target on the federal food stamp program.
His proposed budget includes a 25 percent cut to food stamps. The reduction of $193 billion over a decade is among the biggest cuts in his budget. His budget director, Mick Mulvaney, defended the cut by pointing to the drop in unemployment, insisting that many food stamp recipients should be working by now.
“Isn’t it reasonable for you to at least ask the question, ‘Are there people on that program who shouldn’t be on there?’ ” Mulvaney said.
Trump’s proposed budget will likely change as it works through Congress. Democrats argue it will decimate the social service safety net. But the push to limit food stamps is strong, as well as the belief that able-bodied recipients should work.
Newly appointed U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, a former governor of Georgia, recently said his agency will be compassionate regarding food assistance, but that people shouldn’t make receiving food stamps a “permanent lifestyle.”
“It ought to be a hand up and help out to do that,” said Perdue, whose agency manages the food stamp program formally known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP.
‘I didn’t have the motivation’
The steep drop in Georgia’s food stamp recipients, echoed across the country, has been a boon for taxpayers. Nationally, the program is saving about $1 billion a month compared to 2013.
In Georgia, the federally-funded program is saving $56 million a month compared to 2013. Spread that over a year’s time, and taxpayers could save $671 million a year in Georgia alone.
Maria Chavez is among those Georgians who have dropped food stamps.
She had collected assistance for four years, a single mother supporting two little girls, finding work through a temp agency for part of that time. It was mostly warehouse work, minimum wage. Most of the time she had just enough to get by, and that was fine with her.
Then came a family get-together about a year ago.
“I was the only one there without a job, without the money to contribute,” said Chavez, 25, of Butts County.
That bothered her. She had a moment of clarity about her life.
“I didn’t have the motivation,” she recalled. She felt she’d become complacent about receiving food stamps. She thought to herself, “I got to do better. So I have enough for me and my kids. So I don’t have to depend on the government or anybody.”
That “rough moment,” as she called it, set her on a journey to to push herself harder and find a good job. By the end of last year, she was working as an auditor at a warehouse, making enough money to drop to where she dropped food stamps.
“I feel great,” Chavez said, “My bills are paid. I have more energy.”
Work rules thin the ranks
Some Georgians no longer receive food stamps because the state has been rolling out work requirements for food stamp recipients without kids. The state expanded the program from three counties to 24 this year, including several in the Atlanta area. The plan is to include all 159 counties by 2019.
The requirements, which are spreading across the country, focus on unemployed adults between the ages of 18 and 49 without dependants or disabilities. These people are limited to only three months of food stamp assistance within a three-year period. They can continue the program if they find a job or are enrolled in a job-training or community service program for at least 20 hours a week.
The 24 Georgia counties where the work requirements were implemented initially had some 18,000 able-bodied adults without dependents, labeled in the system as ABAWDs. That figure dropped after implementation by more than 60 percent to 6,573, according to the state Division of Family and Children Services.
The drop in the ABAWD population has stirred vitriolic debate on whether the work rules push people into employment or, if they are dropped from the program, further into poverty and hunger.
Anti-poverty advocates point out that some 40 percent of food stamp recipients are in working households, according to official figures. Moreover, they say many in this group face challenges to holding a job, such as little education, mental health impairments, limited education or criminal records.
Since the start of the work requirements in early 2016, hundreds of recipients initially classified as able-bodied have been reclassified as disabled. They are no longer subject to the work rules but still receive food stamps.
Still, Benita Dodd, vice president of the fiscally conservative Georgia Public Policy Foundation, believes the work mandate is pushing many into jobs. It is helping people break the cycle of dependency on a government entitlement, she said.
“If you make somebody comfortable where they are, they are not going to get up, ” she said.
When the food stamp system crashed
Another factor likely played a role in Georgia’s drop in food stamp recipients. From about 2012 to 2015, the state’s phone system to renew and apply for food stamps suffered a series of problems that forced thousands of people off the program. Callers found themselves on hold for hours. Many could not get through to renew or apply. Thousands of calls went unanswered every month, and many people lost their food stamp benefits.
When these Georgians stopped receiving food stamps, some had to stop paying rent or hold off buying medicine in order to put food on the table, said an attorney with the nonprofit group that filed the lawsuit.
Thousands of additional families likely lost their food stamps during that crisis, said David Super, a Georgetown University law professor who has studied Georgia’s system for over a decade.
Regarding this latest controversy, Super said it’s unfair to compare the figures for food stamp use against the declining unemployment rate. First, he said the number of food stamp recipients who work has been increasing. More senior citizens are also receiving the food assistance. That throws off such comparisons, he said.
“Many people are working but not making enough to provide an adequate diet for their family,” Super said.
Food stamp use reflects poverty, he added. And while poverty has dropped in recent years, it remains higher than it was before the recession.
‘It wasn’t a good feeling’
For many people, the food stamp system has worked, helping them through a rough time until they could get on their feet.
Eric Grant is a disabled Air Force vet. The fighting in Iraq — mortar shelling, breathing the smoke from burn pits — left him with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and post traumatic stress disorder.
When he came home in 2009 he had trouble holding a job. Mental and physical problems, he said. A lot of anger. Most of the time he didn’t want to talk about it.
For years he received only partial VA disability benefits. During that time his wife, Shawanda, suffered a stroke in 2014 that left her bedridden and unable to talk.
Food stamps were in order. The couple and their daughter received about $300 a month for a couple of years.
“It wasn’t a good feeling but I needed it to feed my wife and child,” Grant said. “Your pride kicks in. No one wants to feel like you’re begging.”
The Clayton County resident, who is 46, didn’t give up on trying to improve his life. With financial aid from the Air Force, he received a psychology degree in 2015, but couldn’t find steady work afterward.
His VA benefits increased in August, and he dropped food stamps.
In April Grant’s wife passed away. That made him re-focus his life to “keep moving, keep active, pursue my passion.”
Recently, he was accepted to Clayton State University where he hopes to pursue a career in computer science.
“To design computer programs to help people with mental disabilities.”
The future of food stamps
Next year, Georgia plans to add 60 more counties to the work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependants. That will surely push additional people off food assistance, for better or worse.
Food stamp funding has historically been part of the federal farm bill, and Congress will take that up next year.
Meanwhile, there’s talk of extending the work requirements to food stamp recipients with children. Unterman, who is co-chair of the National Conference of State Legislators’ Hunger Partnership, says it’s time for that.
Clearly, children and the elderly should be excluded from any work mandate, she said.
“All the people in between should go to work,” Unterman said.
Another debate, it seems, is brewing.
Five things to know about food stamps
1. Food stamps are available to citizens of the United States and certain immigrants living legally in the country.
2. To be eligible, a household cannot earn more than 130 percent of the poverty level. For a family of three, that is $26,208 a year. The maximum benefit for that family would be $511 a month.
3. Two-thirds of food stamp participants are children, seniors and adults with a disability.
4. Forty percent of food stamp recipients living in working households.
5. Georgia is rolling out work requirements for able-bodied adults without kids or dependants. The requirements are in 24 counties, several in the Atlanta area, and are slated to go statewide by 2019.
Sources: The U.S. Agriculture Department, the state Division of Family and Children Services.
Federal food stamp spending in U.S. during month of April
2007 - $2.4 billion
2013 - $6.3 billion
2017 - $5.2 billion*
Federal food stamp spending in Ga. during month of April
2007 - $90.6 million
2013 - $262 million
2017 - $206 million