- By Craig Schneider The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Thousands of Georgians have lost their food stamps after the state gave them an ultimatum: Get a job or lose your benefits.
Is that good news or bad news? Depends who you talk to. Placing work requirements on food stamps has proven controversial across the country, with opinions often divided along political lines.
Georgia has been rolling out work requirements for food stamp recipients for over a year. The latest round affected some 12,000 people in 21 counties, several in metro Atlanta, who are considered able-bodied without children.
When the April 1 deadline came around for them to find work, more than half — 7,251 — were dropped from the program, according to state figures released this week. Essentially, the number of recipients spiraled down from 11,779 to 4,528, or a drop of 62 percent.
Views on the work mandate vary widely, and intensely. People on the political right see the requirement as a nudge to those who languish on public benefits. But those on the left believe many people who the state deems able-bodied really cannot hold a job due to physical or mental limitations. And they worry these people will suffer without the assistance.
State officials say they plan to expand the work requirements to all 159 counties by 2019, with another 60 coming on board next year.
Bobby Cagle, director of the state Division of Family and Children Services, has said, “The greater good is people being employed, being productive and contributing to the state.”
The two political sides differ even in their view of the people in this category, who the state identifies as able-bodied adults without dependents or ABAWDs.
Brandon Hanick of the progressive activist group Better Georgia believes this population is filled with people with mental health impairments, limited education and borderline physical handicaps. They often lack the wherewithal to prove to a state bureaucracy their inability to meet the work requirements, he said.
“It’s cruel,” Hanick said of the work requirements. “We’re talking about one of the most basic needs — the need for food.”
But state Rep. Greg Morris, a Republican from Vidalia, said the precipitous drop in recipients shows the mandate is working. He believes many of these food stamp recipients have become complacent, if not lazy, about finding a job.
“This is about protecting taxpayer dollars from abuse, and taking people off the cycle of dependency,” Morris said. The big drop in numbers, he added, “shows how tax dollars are abused when it comes to entitlements.”
Food stamps come from federal dollars, but the program here is managed by DFCS. Some 1.6 million Georgians receive food stamps.
The number of food stamp recipients deemed able-bodied and without children in Georgia has dropped from 111,000 to 89,500 in a year’s time. That is an uncommon reduction of 21,500 people or 19 percent. Officials say they have no firm reason for the sharp decrease, though they suspect a statewide review of this population may have played a role.
The state began implementing the work requirements in 2016 with Cobb, Gwinnett and Hall counties. The state gave recipients there three months to find a job or training program or lose their benefits. A year later, the number of able-bodied, childless adults in those counties diminished 75 percent from 6,102 to 1,490, according to DFCS figures. The state selects counties with relatively low unemployment rates for the work requirements.
But state officials acknowledge the system initially had a problem in classifying who is able-bodied. They discovered that hundreds of people who the state had classified as able-bodied in Cobb, Gwinnett and Hall were actually unable to work. Some lost their food stamps when the work requirements began. Staff have since received additional training.
Georgia’s expansion of the work requirements comes as conservatives nationally push for more welfare-to-work initiatives. All but a handful of states employ work requirements. The mandate is a federal policy, implemented during the welfare reform of the nineties but put on hold during the Great Recession.
President Donald Trump’s new budget plan proposed to cut $192 billion from food stamps over a decade.
What happens to the people dropped from food stamps?
The agency does not track individuals once they leave the program. Officials noted that some may have been reclassified as handicapped. They would still be receiving food stamps but not be required to work. Others may have obtained jobs.
Here again, views on what happens to these people often splits along political affiliations.
Benita Dodd, vice president of the fiscally conservative Georgia Public Policy Foundation, said she believes the work mandate is pushing many into jobs.
“It does show that if you give people an incentive to help themselves, they can become productive citizens,” she said.
But Melissa Johnson, a senior policy analyst with the left-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, has more dire concerns. Food stamps, often the first government assistance sought by people in hard times, are “such a meager benefit,” she said, adding that the average benefit is $129 a month in Georgia.
“I believe these time limits are harmful, and they are likely to lead to more hunger and hardship,” Johnson said.
DFCS officials say they have repeatedly reached out to these recipients, offering them help with job searches and training. The agency has a $505,706 contract with Goodwill of North Georgia to help people get training and connections to employers.
“The agency has many services to offer (them), but many have chosen not to respond to multiple notices,” said DFCS spokeswoman Mary Beth Lukich.