OPINION: Payouts to Ga. residents not flexible enough to meet needs

For many Georgia residents, notice of the state’s cash assistance program was a benefit they appreciated, but almost immediately, some users ran into trouble.

Jeanne Morrison wanted to use the virtual prepaid debit card to pay Fulton County property taxes, but the card was repeatedly declined. “Now I have to save that money by offsetting my expenses onto this card from some other place,” Morrison said.

After I wrote a previous column about the ways Gov. Brian Kemp has reduced benefits to low- or fixed-income Georgians while simultaneously pledging to help them with one-time $350 payments, I heard from several residents who were frustrated at not being able to use the money in ways that really mattered.

In August, Kemp pledged $1.2 billion in federal COVID-19 aid on cash payments of $350 to more than 3 million Georgians who benefit from programs including Medicaid, subsidized child health insurance, food stamps or cash assistance. Though Kemp publicly opposed the pandemic relief package, he has used the funds to allocate millions to everything ranging from high-speed internet in rural Georgia to awards and grants to businesses and nonprofits.

When the cash assistance was first distributed in late September, some users had trouble paying for basic needs such as food, gas and utilities. Within a week, the state Department of Human Services (DHS) said the “technical issues” had been fixed and more residents were able to use their cards for needed expenses.

Two weeks later, a reader emailed to tell me he needed to pay his car note but the card was declined. “The restrictions on the card make it hard to use,” he wrote. “Any chance you can help get this fixed?”

I wanted to help this reader, because what good is it to have money to spend on gas if what you really need is money to make sure your car is not repossessed?

My questions to DHS were very specific: What does the “expired” message mean? How might residents be able to use the funds to pay property taxes? Why would residents not be able to use the funds to pay for a car note?

“Some customers may be misinterpreting the ‘invalid expiry date’ error code. This code means that the expiration date entered for the card is incorrect. To resolve the issue, customers should re-enter their card information with the correct expiration date and reprocess the transaction,” was the response I received in a statement from DHS.

Morrison, who ended up loading the card value to Amazon after it was declined for property taxes, wasn’t buying it. “I always copy and paste as a matter of habit because it is easy to screw up a number,” she said. “The first thing they say is user error … you can make it so difficult to use that no one uses it.”

Another Atlanta resident, Sylesta Seabrum, said she hasn’t received the cash assistance yet. Virtual cards were sent beginning in late September. Physical cards are being mailed through mid-October, according to DHS.

“I smell a rat,” said Seabrum, who has heard from friends about the redemption problems.

DHS says the card can be used anywhere Mastercard debit cards are accepted in the U.S., but it cannot be converted to cash, transferred to certain payment apps or used for gaming, gambling, lottery, adult entertainment, alcohol, tobacco, vaping or firearms.

Seabrum said she will likely use some of the money on groceries whenever she receives the cash assistance but said she had already lost the most valuable assistance that helped with food purchases.

“They were giving away thousands of dollars in food stamps,” Seabrum said. “We could use that now.”

She was talking specifically about the pandemic Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits that ended in May.

“If any Georgian or Georgia families are experiencing food insecurity, we have many other statewide programs to help support them,” a spokesperson for Kemp told Pew Charitable Trust in July.

Georgia residents didn’t need the additional help, the spokesperson said, citing a strong economy and a low unemployment rate.

Why then would Kemp announce just one month later, a cash assistance program designed to provide “immediate relief to some of Georgia’s most vulnerable families as they battle 40-year-high inflation”?

Helping people in need means helping them with the expenses they feel are most needed, when they are most needed.

When the cash assistance card was declined for property taxes, Morrison called the state’s customer service number but got no answer. After tracking down the card issuer, Morrison reached out directly to that company to no avail.

As a test, Morrison then used the card to make a small purchase on Amazon. The transaction processed immediately.

Instead of paying property taxes, Morrison ended up with a puzzle book.

The cash assistance makes a big splash for Kemp but feels like a political stunt, Morrison said: “The only reason he is doing this is because it is an election year.”

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.