As Georgia expands work requirements to more food stamp recipients, state officials are wrestling with what seems to be a simple question: who is really able-bodied?
Social service workers have discovered that hundreds of people who the agency had classified as able-bodied, were in fact not capable of working.
Some people with disabilities likely lost their food stamps when they failed to find work, though the number remains unknown as the state has not tracked such figures. Others are still collecting food stamps after being reclassified as unable to work.
The idea of work requirements is popular in many quarters, especially among conservatives. They believe it will rid the food stamp ranks of those who are milking taxpayer dollars. But the early efforts in Georgia suggest that transforming political rhetoric into action is a more complicated undertaking then it might appear.
The state's work mandate applies to food stamp recipients in 24 counties who are able-bodied and without children. The policy says they can only collect food stamps for three months, unless they get into a job or training program.
MORE: Able-bodied food stamp recipients could lose benefits
IN DEPTH: Battle over food stamps highlights polarizing rift
Since the work program began last year, hundreds of people who had been declared able-bodied when they first applied for food stamps, have subsequently contacted the agency and were reclassified as being unable to work.
“Hundreds, at the least,” said Tatrina Young, the food stamp employment and training coordinator for the state Division of Family and Children Services.
Who’s to blame?
DFCS spokesman Susan Boatwright said the agency acted appropriately in these cases. The problem was that many people applying for food stamps refused to reveal that they had a disability or other challenge, she said. Staff have received additional training to emphasize the importance of people sharing that information.
Looking across the state, the number could be in the thousands. In the past year, the number of food stamp recipients deemed able-bodied and without children has dropped from 111,000 to 89,500. 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.
“We are doing a much more focused review of all customers who are coded as (able-bodied without children),” said DFCS spokeswoman Mary Beth Lukich. She added that the decrease in the numbers does not mean these people are no longer receiving benefits.
“This more likely means that they have been reviewed and were found to be exempt” from the work requirements, she said.
Concern more will slip through cracks
These figures emerge as the state cracks down on even more food stamp recipients declared able-bodied and who are not working. In January, the state expanded the work requirements from three counties to another 21 counties, adding several in the metro area, such as Bartow, Barrow and Coweta. Some 12,000 able-bodied recipients are in those counties.
Their deadline to find a job was April 1.
Social service advocates worry that more people will slip through the cracks.
“It raises questions as to whether they are going to start sending notices telling people they are disqualified, when they shouldn’t be,” said Charles Bliss, the Atlanta Legal Aid Society advocacy director.
The mix-ups speak to a central question in this issue: Who are these food stamp recipients that the state has termed Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents?
Conservatives often see these people as gaming the entitlement system, complacently waiting for the next hand-out. The work mandate drives them into the work world, they say.
Rep. David Clark, R-Buford, said that despite the problems, he still supports the work requirements on able-bodied recipients, and the state’s plan to take the mandate statewide by 2019. Food stamps are federally funded but the state manages the program.
“I do think a big number can work, and we need to make sure they are working,” said Clark, who has chaired a House Study Committee on Welfare Fraud.
Progressives, on the other hand, say many of these people face challenges to finding work, such as physical and mental health issues, little education and criminal records. Such conditions can blur the line between able-bodied and unable to work, they say.
All but five states now have work requirements for able-bodied food stamp recipients. Ed Bolen, a senior policy analyst for the Center on Budget Policy Priorities, said many social service agencies across the country do a poor job of screening out those who should be exempt from the work mandate.
Many unfairly lose their benefits, he said.
“They’re usually hungry and scrambling to keep their lives together,” Bolen said.
Pitfalls in screening process
The process by which DFCS screens food stamp applicants had some inherent challenges. Many people submitted their application online, and were interviewed over the phone, meaning the DFCS worker may not have seen the person.
(DFCS has since modified that process so more people come into the office for their interview.)
One man declared to be able-bodied, Army veteran Abdul Kately of Marietta, had to seek help at a food pantry when the state dropped his food stamps last year. He said he permanently damaged his left elbow while exercising in the service and his other arm, after years of overuse, was in poor shape.
After Kately spent nearly two months without food stamps, DFCS accepted his disability papers from the Veterans Administration as proof that he really could not work. His food stamps, equaling $194 a month, were reinstated.
“I think (the agency) could have done better, ” he said at the time. “It was so easy to get cut off, and so hard to get back on.”
DFCS officials say they have done their due diligence. Even before the work mandate, staff asked food stamp applicants if they were able to work or had children. But many people chose not to share that information, Young said.
“They were reluctant to share the information because they thought it was private,” Young said.
Back then it didn’t much matter. Before Jan. 1, 2016, the work requirements had not yet been put in place. So there was no mandate for people to get a job.
The work program began last year in three counties, Cobb, Gwinnett and Hall. DFCS sent several notices to people alerting them of their status as able-bodied and their deadline to find work. But if the people did not reach out to the agency, their food stamps could have been cut off.
Across the country, agencies that implement the work mandate often see a dramatic decrease in the number of food stamp recipients identified as able-bodied and without children. In Cobb, Gwinnett and Hall, the number diminished 75 percent from 6,102 to 1,490, according to DFCS figures.
This year, DFCS officials say they are doing more to help these food stamp recipients find work. The agency has contracted with Goodwill of North Georgia to help people train and find work. The charity has 13 career centers that helped 20,903 people find jobs last year.
Goodwill offers job-search resources, help with writing a professional résumé and cover letter, access to employment opportunities, and hands-on skill training.
Counties that have begun requiring work for able-bodied food stamp recipients:
Counties where the work requirements have been in place since last year: