Battle over food stamps highlights polarizing rift

Food stamps. These days, those are fighting words.

For some, they represent all that’s wrong with the welfare system, a government entitlement built to fail, a handout abused by the “takers” in society.

“The more the handouts, the lazier people get,” said Stacey Craig of Snellville.

Others see it as a lifeline for the most basic of needs — food, and a statement that this country will not let the needy go hungry. They worry about recent efforts to require some recipients find a job, or risk losing their benefits.

“How about just helping people who want to work find good jobs, without the draconian angle of threatened starvation?” said John Sheffield of College Park.

About one in five Georgians receives food stamps, making it among the most frequently used social service programs. Debate is heating up as states adopt federal rules that able-bodied people without children must work or lose the benefit. Georgia enacted the requirement in three counties in January and reached it’s first deadline April 1. Already, the number of these people on food stamps in the three counties has been cut in half, down to 2,590 recipients.

It’s a topic that has captured public interest. One recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution story attracted 953 comments from online readers - an extraordinarily high number - both praising and blasting the program. The comments of Craig and Sheffield were among them. While these comments don’t represent a scientific sampling, they reveal a rich community conversation filled with give-and-take from all points on the political compass.

Georgia’s recent crackdown marks another milestone for an program heralded during the Depression, vilified in the Reagan era, and overhauled under Bill Clinton. Republican presidential front runner Donald Trump recently talked about the need to roll back the number of people on food stamps.

Here, the work requirements are isolated to Cobb, Gwinnett and Hall counties. But there is already talk of making them statewide. The AJC found challenges to implementing such a change. Chief among them is the price tag: Georgia officials say it would cost the state as much as $40 million a year in extra work and staff, with little, if any, financial benefit to the state.

Moreover, such a widespread mandate could upset the state’s efforts to stabilize a food stamp program that has been in shambles for years, according to officials at the state Division of Family and Children Services, which manages the program.

Even opponents of the new rules acknowledge that the public largely expects that an able-bodied, childless adult should look for work. But some social service advocates worry about the state’s ability to identify those capable of work.

“I’m not sure a DFCS worker has the ability or capacity to make that determination,” said Ellen Gerstein, executive director of the Gwinnett Coalition for Health and Human Services.

Consequently, social service advocates worry that a number of people ousted from the system under the work requirements, really can’t work.

“These are some of the poorest educated, and poorest in terms of income,” said Melissa Johnson, a policy analyst with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. “I worry about them connecting to other resources, and finding food in other ways.”

Another term for welfare

Stacey Craig said she’s seen people abuse food stamps right in front of her. At the supermarket, the woman said she saw a person use the plastic EBT card - the current method for food stamps - to buy a cart full of junk food and expensive steaks.

“That’s what burns me the most,” said the 56-year-old accountant. “I get up every morning to go to work and pay taxes. … Our society has created a bunch of freeloaders.”

Defenders of the program stress that the average benefit for a single person without kids is $190 a month. They don’t want to see that taken away, especially when they see the criticism as little more than shaming the poor.

Some 40 percent of all food stamps recipients are in working families, according to state figures.

“When does the program start that requires other welfare recipients to tow the line? I’m talking about the Wall Street bilkers and big corporate farmers,” Edith Stanley wrote.

Food stamps draw strong and divisive opinions. People may not be familiar with other government assistance programs, such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and the nutrition program for women, infants and children. But they quickly grasp the idea of food stamps, said Douglas Besharov, a University of Maryland public policy professor.

“It is a symbol. It’s now what people think of as welfare,” Besharov said. “We don’t really see people and know they’re on Medicaid.”

Fueling the debate is a welter of horror stories, he said: the welfare queen having more kids to boost her benefits, the layabout waiting for the government check, people selling food stamps on the black market.

The work mandates were actually created under the welfare reform of 1996, though suspended during the Great Recession. As the economy has recovered, numerous states have reinstated them.

Participation in the food stamp program grew rapidly during the Great Recession, earning President Barack Obama the moniker “the food stamp president.” In Georgia, the program added 700,000 people - a 63 percent hike to 1.9 million recipients - from 2009 to 2013. The current figure stands at about 1.8 million. Some 111,000 are considered able-boded without children.

The AJC’s reader comments on food stamps, gathered together, printed out to 175 pages, a book-length representation of the polarizing conversation going on. The debate presents a classic political battle between the left and right, said Bob Grafstein, a University of Georgia political science professor.

“People on the left say, ‘Are you going to let people starve’?” Grafstein said. “On the right, they’re saying, ‘You’re taking food out of my kid’s mouth to feed them.’ ”

John Sheffield read many of the reader comments. Jobless, collecting food stamps, the 52-year-old knows what people think, at least some people. He looks capable of holding a job, though admits he’s pretty out of shape.

The former call center worker hasn’t held a steady job since 2010. He lost track of all the places he’s applied for work. He’s gone through some $40,000 in savings, and he’s down to living with his sister in College Park. He receives $195 a month in food stamps.

Over time, he’s become depressed. At times, the dark moods rob him of any sense of initiative. When he recovers, he beats himself up for not working harder to find work.

He said he has problems with his feet, so he can’t stand for too long. “I’m probably not impaired enough to be disabled,” he said. “I could do some desk work.”

Sheffield lives in Fulton County, which currently doesn’t have a work requirement. But he’s concerned state lawmakers will change that.

“I think the people trying to pass these rules have no empathy,” Sheffield said. “Hitting me with a stick isn’t going to make me work any faster.”

A flawed system

In recent months, the state invited able-bodied food stamp recipients to orientations on the work mandate. These meetings, while sparsely attended, exposed a problem.

DFCS found that about one in four people who showed up were actually not able to work, due to physical or mental problems, said Sandra Frederick, the DFCS employment and training coordinator.

Social service providers point to flaws in the application process. DFCS officials say they’ve changed the process in recent months to improve the assessment on whether a person can work. For instance, more people are coming into DFCS offices for face-to-face interviews.

In the past, people could apply online and receive a phone interview. When a person said they were unable to work, the worker generally asked them provide documentation proving it.

That’s where the system broke down, said Charles Bliss, advocacy director for the Atlanta Legal Aid Society. People who are poor with mental or physical problems often don’t have the money or means to get that documentation and deliver it to the agency, he said.

Frederick believes the changes will result in fewer people falling through the cracks. During face-to-face interviews, caseworkers can employ more discretion in making their assessment, meaning they won’t necessarily force the person to produce medical documentation.

Taking it statewide

By some standards, the recent crackdown on able-bodied, childless food stamp recipients has been a success. State officials estimate that by May 1, the number of them receiving benefits in the three time-limited counties could drop from 6,102 in January to as few as 1,500.

Supporters are already calling for more. Republican state Rep. David Clark of Buford said he anticipates a bill next year to expand the work requirements statewide.

But such a rapid expansion could prove costly and ill-timed.

The power to expand the work requirements currently stands with DFCS. Working with the Governor’s Office, the agency is expected to make a decision by August on which counties should fall under work requirements. Much of that decision will depend on a county’s unemployment rates. The plan must be approved by the U.S. Agriculture Department, which oversees the food stamp program.

DFCS Director Bobby Cagle said a statewide expansion could cost DFCS an additional $40 million a year, requiring 686 additional full-time employees to work with people, provide job training and help with job searches. Food stamps are funded totally by the federal government, so virtually any savings from reducing the rolls would fall to the feds, not the state. Georgia shares in the cost of administering the program.

Then there is the timing. DFCS is under a federal mandate to fix the food stamp system or face financial penalties. The system has been plagued with troubles, causing tens of thousands of Georgians to lose their benefits or be blocked from applying.

Beyond that, DFCS is implementing a $140 million computer software system to handle eligibility for food stamps, Medicaid and other programs.

“The challenges of implementing a statewide program include diverting management attention and critical resources away from the priorities of stabilizing the current program,” said Jon Anderson, head of the DFCS Office of Family Independence.

Clearly, the issue of food stamps is a fault line dividing people on the left and right, with passion and anger on both sides, said Kevin Lanning, a psychology professor at Florida Atlantic University. While clashing rhetoric is nothing new in American politics, Lanning sees a harshness in this presidential race, perhaps best exemplified by Trump but evident in many exchanges. He sees a similar mood in the country.

“We’ve all become less tolerant of each other,” said Lanning, who specializes in the psychology of politics.

For now, the debate rages on. Even people with mixed opinions express them strongly.

“Of course there are people who really need the help. But there are WAAAAY too many able-bodied people that are gaming the system,” wrote Peggy Miles. “I want that STOPPED.”

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