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Jan
2013
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Must-Read Slate Article Exposes Georgia as “a Laboratory” for ALEC’s Anti-Welfare Policies

Former GA Governor Sonny Perdue eating (unlike many Georgians)


In 1996, President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich had their own “grand bargain”, an overhaul of the welfare system that created a set of guidelines allowing states to create their own rules in helping those most in need. The result 15 years later, sadly, was the percentage of poor Americans receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) dropping from 68 to 27 percent. Some states have avoided the aid downturn while others have made it their goal to end welfare completely.

An incredible article by Neil de Mause for Slate, “Georgia’s Hunger Games,” provides an in-depth look at how the state of Georgia has used the framework set in 1996 to turn its back on its poor while siphoning off federal funds to pay for its unrelated Child Welfare Program. According to de Mause, Georgia’s poor are weathering a perfect storm that is preventing them from receiving the help they desperately need and placing the burden of aid on regional charities and churches. 

This storm is made up of a state government entirely run by Republicans, some creative bookkeeping, and an exceptionally strong influence by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). In describing ALEC’s role in Georgia’s welfare policies, Minority Leader Stacey Abrams said, “We have become a laboratory for their policies.” Abrams also argues that there is a genuine distrust of the system by conservatives in the state that allows Georgia’s war against the poor to play out in plain sight.

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 not alone in this regard but they are certainly on the forefront of denying assistance. Much of this has to do with their strict standards, standards those in true need are nary able to meet.

de Mause gives the example of Cassie, a single mom in Atlanta’s suburbs:

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.

The sweeping changes that led to Georgia’s current situation began in 2004 when Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, the state’s first Republican Governor since reconstruction, hired Beverly Walker as commissioner of Georgia’s Department of Human Services. A women whose goal of zero welfare was so serious it was reported she would pass out “Zero Bars” to employees as a white fudge covered reminder of their objective. Her philosophy towards the poor, which included ending funding for GED and Technical School programs, has been described as “sink or swim.” According to de Mause,

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.’ ”

Walker left the position in 2011 but the Department carries on her traditions. Soon, depending on court review, Georgia will require anyone applying for TANF to take a mandatory drug test within 48 hours of applying. This will cost the Georgian in question, already in desperate need of assistance, an additional $17. It is entirely possible they will not have this money.

Perhaps most disheartening is that people are going hungry while the state is hiding the amount of federal money it is not using to fight poverty. According to de Mause,

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.”

To simplify: a broken 1996 system is being “fixed” by powerful lobbies such as ALEC whose interest is in keeping the system broken in 2013. Georgia has money to help those in need but chooses to spend its time playing the role of bully, shaming those who the funds are intended to aid. The situation is possibly best described by Kelda O’Neal, a young grandmother trying to help her daughter get assistance from the state:

“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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