More will have to work to keep food stamps

Georgia plans to significantly expand the number of counties that require food stamp recipients with no children to find a job, extending the program from three to 24 counties across the state.

The extension will bring another 10,000 people under the work mandate, presenting them with an ultimatum: get a job or lose your food stamps.

Slated to start in January, the plan has also reignited a flame-throwing debate about the work requirements that often falls along partisan lines. That debate flared earlier this year when state officials implemented the mandate in three counties — Cobb, Gwinnett and Hall. The move has cut the number of childless food stamp recipients in those places by 60 percent, from 6,102 when the program began in January to 2,468 currently.

Because food stamps are federally funded, the plan by the state Division of Family and Children Services must receive federal approval, which officials say is expected next month.

Proponents say the mandate will force able-bodied recipients without children into the work world. They particularly point to those they believe are milking the system when they should be job-hunting.

“No one who is able-bodied and able to work should be drawing food stamps, period,” said Rep. Greg Morris, R-Vidalia. That applies even more to childless adults, said Morris, who is considering the introduction of legislation to extend work requirements to all 159 counties in the state.

But safety net advocates worry that recipients who can’t find a job will lose the help they need to fulfill the most fundamental of needs — putting food on the table.

“There are a lot of people who cannot find jobs based on criminal records, a lack of education, the availability of jobs and impairments,” said Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur. She added, “I believe we should have a safety net for those people.”

Since the mandate began in three counties, the state has acknowledged numerous instances in which food stamp recipients had been declared able-bodied, when they actually could not hold a job. State officials noted that people can challenge the assessment.

One man declared to be able-bodied, Army veteran Abdul Kately of Marietta, had to seek help at a food pantry when he was dropped from the food stamp program earlier this year. He challenged the decision and was placed back on food stamps.

The planned expansion of the work requirements, largely clustered in North Georgia, includes the Atlanta area counties of Coweta, Forsyth, Paulding, Bartow, Barrow and Fayette as well as more outlying counties such as Walton, Jackson and Oconee. The counties were chosen because they had a relatively favorable unemployment rate, which officials believe means people will have a greater chance of scoring jobs there.

Georgia has an unemployment rate of 5.1 percent, slightly above the national average of 4.9 percent.

The food stamp work mandate was introduced in the welfare reforms of 1996 but was waived in many states during the recent years of economic strife. Georgia is among numerous states to bring it back online. Under the rules, able-bodied, childless recipients can receive food stamps for only three months in any three year period, unless they meet the work requirements.

To continue receiving the assistance, they must work 20 hours a week or participate in an approved training or education program. They can also perform “workfare” - essentially unpaid charity work approved by the state.

“Ending welfare assistance is not just about saving taxpayer dollars, although that is always welcome,” Benita Dodd wrote in a recent commentary for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, where she discussed the upcoming expansion. “The goal must be to focus aid on those who truly need help and restore the dignity of work to able-bodied adults.”

Able-bodied, childless adults represent only a small number of food stamp recipients. In Georgia, 1.7 million people, or about one in every six, receive the assistance. The majority are children, the elderly and the disabled. Georgia has a total of 113,000 food stamp recipients classified as childless and able-bodied adults, according to DFCS.

Melissa Johnson, a senior policy analyst with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, believes the state throws around the term “able-bodied” too lightly. She worries that people worthy of the benefit will wrongfully lose their assistance.

“When we add 20 or more counties, we’ll see an even steeper drop off of people losing this critical help,” she said.

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