Days from now, thousands more Georgia food stamp recipients would lose their benefits if they fail to find a job.
The April 1 deadline applies to nearly 12,000 adults - all deemed able-bodied and without children - in 21 counties, including many in North Georgia and several in the Atlanta area such as Forsyth, Bartow and Barrow.
A wave of people is expected to lose benefits in Georgia because of the mandate. When work requirements have been introduced in other states, more than half the affected people often lose their food stamps. And three counties in Georgia that put the work mandate in place last year have seen their rolls significantly decline.
In January, the state gave these people three months to find a job or face losing their benefits.
The state has been rolling out work requirements for able-bodied, childless adults for a year, and the get-tough policy has proved wildly popular among conservatives. Critics have blasted the move as insensitive and uninformed about the plight of people who need food stamps.
State officials say they plan to expand the work requirements to all 159 counties in the state by 2019, with another 60 coming on board next year.
“Every able-bodied person should have a job,” said state Rep. Greg Morris, R-Vidalia. “This will stop the dignity-robbing cycle of dependency on government.”
Morris believes the work requirement will light a fire under “freeloaders,” pressing them into the work world.
But state Rep. David Wilkerson, D-Powder Springs, said many of these people can’t really hold a job because of issues such as a low level of education, mental health issues, undiagnosed medical problems and criminal records.
“We’re taking away their safety net,” Wilkerson said. ”It’s a lack of sensitivity.”
He believes many will spiral further into poverty, health problems and despair.
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 on food stamp recipients. There is also fresh talk in Washington of mandating work for some Medicaid recipients.
Georgia began the work requirements last year in three counties - Cobb, Gwinnett and Hall. The policy mandates that these able-bodied adults can collect food stamps for only three months in a three-year period, unless they get into a job or training program.
A year later, the number of able-bodied, childless adults in those counties diminished 75 percent from 6,102 to 1,490, according to figures by the state Division of Family and Children Services. Counties are chosen because they have a relatively low unemployment rate.
But state officials acknowledge the system had a problem. They discovered that hundreds of people who had been classified as able-bodied were actually unable to work. Many lost their food stamps and had to reapply.
It’s unclear how many people slipped through the cracks and just faded away.
“We’re trying to be more mindful about correctly identifying a person’s work status and their ability to work,” said Tatrina Young, the DFCS employment and training coordinator for the food stamp program.
The new work requirements affected 11,779 currently collecting food stamps in the 21 counties.
In anticipation of the April 1 deadline, DFCS has mailed people several notices about the policy. But Young acknowledged that some people might slip through the cracks again.
That worries Melissa Johnson, a senior policy analyst for the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a left-leaning fiscal think tank. She suspects thousands of people will lose their benefits. Some of these people live a peripatetic life of sleeping at the homes of friends or relatives. So they may not receive the notices.
“It’s harsh,” Johnson said. “When a person loses their food stamps, they are in dire straits.”
The state, she said, needs to do more to help people on food stamps obtain employment. The federal government requires states to provide job assistance to those receiving food stamps but allows them great leeway in doing so.
Food stamp officials in Georgia insist they want to help these recipients find work.
"The greater good is people being employed, being productive and contributing to the state, " said Bobby Cagle, director of the state Division of Family and Children Services.
DFCS has a poor record of helping food stamp recipients find work. But DFCS officials say they are making a more concerted effort this time around. DFCS has partnered with Goodwill of North Georgia to provide job training and connections to employers.
Many conservatives view able-bodied food stamp recipients, especially those with no kids, as lazy people milking the system as they wait on the next government hand-out.
Some people receiving food stamps become complacent and need to be reminded that food stamps are a hand up, not a hand-out, said Benita Dodd, vice president of the fiscally conservative Georgia Public Policy Foundation.
“Some people need a little encouragement,” she said.
If something is wrong with the agency’s vetting of people, then officials should improve the system, she added.
“We don’t want people hurting because of this,” she said.
Some 1.65 million Georgians receive food stamps, which are fully funded by the federal government. The state pays for part of the administration of the program. The great majority of recipients are parents, children, the elderly and the disabled who are exempt from the new rules. But 89,501 are considered able-bodied adults without children. A single person can receive up to $194 a month.
Some 40 percent of all food stamp recipients are in working families.
Georgia’s food stamp program has struggled with chronic problems and controversies in recent years. In 2014, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the state had been wasting millions of dollars a year — about $138 million in 2013 alone — in over-payments to people who receive food stamps.
The state also had to spend millions to fix a flawed call-in system that thwarted residents seeking to obtain benefits.