Thousands in Georgia to lose food stamps

The story so far

Earlier: In January, the state implemented new food stamp rules requiring able-bodied, childless adults to find work. The state began with a pilot project in three counties - Cobb, Gwinnett and Hall.

The latest: Friday marks the first deadline for these recipients to find work. The state expects as many as 5,000 of these recipients in the three counties will lose their food stamps.

What’s next: A key lawmaker has called for the work requirements to be applied statewide.

Food stamp numbers

Number of food stamp recipients in Georgia — 1.8 million.

Number of food stamp recipients in Gwinnett, Cobb and Hall — 224,321

Number of able-bodied, childless adults on food stamps in Georgia — 111,000

Number of able-bodied, childless adults on food stamps in Gwinnett, Cobb and Hall — 5,818

Number of able-bodied, childless adults on food stamps who could lose their benefits — up to 5,000

Source: Georgia Division of Family and Children Services.

Thousands of metro Atlantans are expected to lose their food stamps beginning Friday, having failed to meet a new deadline requiring them to find a job.

The work mandate applies to able-bodied adults without children in Cobb, Gwinnett and Hall counties. Begun in January, the pilot program states that these adults can collect food stamps for only three months in a three-year period, unless they get into a job or training program.

Already a key state lawmaker is calling for the work requirements to be applied statewide.

The first deadline arrives Friday for the roughly 6,000 affected adults in the three counties, and while the state has yet to tally the number who will lose the federally funded benefit, officials expect the figure to be in the thousands. In January, the agency estimated that as many as 5,000 of them could lose benefits, which average $190 a month.

Supporters say the work requirement prevents employable people from milking the system, and that the deadline pushes them toward the work world. But safety net providers worry that many of these people really can't hold a job, due to physical and mental problems, and that the state will remove the help they need to fulfill the most basic of needs — food.

State Rep. David Clark, R-Buford, said it’s time for Georgia to crack down on those abusing the welfare system. Clark led a House study committee on welfare fraud during the recent legislative session.

“This is going to make people step up and look for a job,” he said.

Clark said he would support legislation expected next session to expand the work requirement for food stamps to the entire state. He praised the timing of the initiative. The federal government had originally introduced the measure during the welfare reform of the nineties, though suspended it during the Great Recession. Georgia is among numerous states to reinstate it.

Since the recession ended, more jobs have become available, Clark said. People who can work and don’t have children can move to another place to find work. They can even satisfy the state requirement by volunteering for a charity. Those who can’t work can receive a waiver from the state.

“It’s not just going after poor people,” Clark said. “We have to find a way to motivate them.”

But some social service providers suspect the initiative is aimed at thinning the food stamp ranks. Even opponents of the new rules acknowledge that the public largely expects that an able-bodied, childless adult receiving public assistance should look for work, and that the government should demand that.

The greatest concern is for people who the state deems as able-bodied, but who are not, said Charlie Bliss, advocacy director for Atlanta Legal Aid Society. He pointed to those who’ve applied for federal disability benefits but been turned down.

“The effect is likely to be very harsh on people who can’t get jobs, and who now won’t have the money to get food,” he said.

The state Division of Family and Children Services has sent five notices to people on the verge of losing their benefits, said spokeswoman Susan Boatwright. The agency also held several orientations in the three counties to familiarize recipients with the new rules. But officials said many recipients didn’t come forward to prove they either had a job or were disabled, allowing them to continue to collect the benefits.

The federal government requires states to provide job assistance to those receiving food stamps but allows them great leeway in doing so.

In Georgia, the SNAP Works Program provides help with short-term vocational training, experience through charity work, and placement in education and training programs.

“The division has been working to inform these recipients of the eligibility criteria,” Boatwright said. “It has also been working with the Labor Department and other agencies, such as Goodwill, to ensure that participants have all available job-seeking resources.”

In addition, the state is investing $100,000 this year across a dozen counties to help people prepare for the workforce and connect with jobs.

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 overpayments to people who receive food stamps. The state had to spend millions of dollars to fix a flawed call-in system that thwarted residents seeking to obtain benefits. And the state's efforts to link food stamps to drug tests was blocked by the federal government

Although food stamp benefits are funded completely through federal dollars, the program is administered by the state DFCS.