Graves Elementary School became the first school in Gwinnett County to offer a monthly food pantry to the community. At its inagural event on Jan. 23, about 70 families came to “shop” for staples. Each family received 40 to 50 pounds of groceries with about 25% consisting of fresh produce. In partnership with the Atlanta Community Food Bank, the program is another resource the school has to serve the needs of its children. COURTESY OF GRAVES ELEMENTARY

Welfare rolls in Georgia cut by nearly two-thirds since 2006

The number of Georgia families receiving welfare benefits has dropped by more than two-thirds in the past 14 years as the state has applied constant pressure to drive down the the rolls.

Georgia granted benefits through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, commonly known as welfare, to an average of 10,159 households a month this fiscal year, as of May, according to Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services statistics. That number is down from an average monthly 33,302 TANF cases in fiscal 2006.

Welfare payments cost the government $35.3 million in 2018, down from more than $55 million a decade earlier, when families, on average, received less.

The number of households receiving TANF benefits has consistently dropped, even through the Great Recession. The agency was not able to provide welfare numbers before 2006.

Officials with DFCS said the decreasing rolls are a sign that the program is working.

“Many at our smallest level of income get $155 (a month),” said Jon Anderson, the head of DFCS’ Office of Family Independence. “Some people look at that and say, ‘I can make more working full time than TANF would bring into my household,’ and make the decision to go to work.”

Georgia trends mirror what’s gone on nationally.

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Since Congress passed sweeping changes to the welfare program in 1996, the number of households receiving benefits has consistently dropped across the country. Changes implemented in the ’90s gave states more control over how to run welfare, which has long been politically stigmatized. That, in turn, resulted in fewer households across the country receiving benefits.

According to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 23% of families in poverty received money through TANF. That number is down from 68% in 1996.

Fred Brooks, a professor at Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies who focuses on social work, said the Legislature has consistently focused on getting people to work as opposed to providing cash aid.

In June 2018, the average welfare recipient received $260 a month, according to DFCS. The amounts, set by the Legislature, haven’t increased with the rate of inflation in recent years, Anderson said.

State Rep. Greg Morris, a Vidalia Republican, said he believes the improving economy means fewer Georgians are in need. Morris has long supported legislation that would drive down the rolls for those receiving public assistance.

“And I don’t think in a growing economy we need to be increasing any kind of welfare benefits,” Morris said.

In December 2006, Georgia’s unemployment rate was 4.4%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unemployment climbed to 10.6% in 2010, but 755,000 jobs have since been created and the rate had fallen to 3.7% by May.

The state requires TANF recipients to work or participate in training for at least 30 hours each week. Anderson said requirements are explained to those seeking TANF benefits when applying, and some choose not to sign up.

Those who sign up get access to job-searching assistance, or, if necessary, they receive help finishing high school, completing a GED program or finding another specialized certification program.

State legislators for years have supported initiatives to limit the number of people receiving public assistance, including attempts to pass legislation that would have required drug testing for Georgians who receive food stamps.

Eden Purdy, the director of programs at North Fulton Community Charities, said about 3,900 families visit her organization each year seeking emergency assistance with things such as money and food.

She said people who come to the charity say the restrictions placed on those seeking TANF benefits deter people from going through the process.

“It’s very hard to be approved, and they say they don’t feel like it’s worth their time,” Purdy said. “They’re looking for supplemental ways to support their household, and TANF only provides a small amount of money.”

Brooks, the Georgia State professor, published a study last year after speaking with 60 Georgians who stopped receiving TANF benefits between 2009 and 2015 to examine what happens to people once they’re no longer on the welfare rolls.

“The No. 1 reason that people left TANF is because they found a job — and the system is set up to do exactly that,” Brooks said. “Everyone I interviewed had collected a check for a while, but there was consistent pressure or incentive (through the state requirements) to get off of TANF and get a job.”

Brooks said that fewer people receiving welfare benefits does not mean there are fewer people in poverty in Georgia.

“Most people who qualify for welfare don’t even think about applying for it,” he said. “Studies show that people don’t think they can apply for it.”

DFCS previously conducted so-called “leaver studies,” but now officials don’t track why people no longer receive the benefit.

Luther Washington, the founder and executive director of the Mableton-based Family Life Restoration Center, said the nonprofit doesn’t track whether the people who come to it for help are on public assistance. The organization provides food, clothes, weekly hot meals and access to medical screenings to people who go to the facility and say they need help.

Many who come say their either receive or have received welfare benefits before, Washington said.

“People will come and say, ‘I was receiving TANF but didn’t meet the number of hours I needed to, so they took it,’ ” he said. “We don’t dig. We say, ‘Here. Fill out the paperwork. We’ll help you.’”

People visiting the nonprofit’s food pantry on Tuesday declined to share whether they received welfare.

Brooks said the average benefit of those in his study, usually a family of one adult and two children, received about $230 a month in welfare benefits.

Alex Camardelle, a senior policy analyst with the left-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, said studies have shown that while people may be getting off welfare and going to work, oftentimes the jobs are in low-paying industries such as food services, child care and retail.

“We should hope that TANF will promote job-training opportunities that lead to jobs that pay a wage that is family-supporting and a job that has benefits,” he said.

Lauren Waits, the director of government affairs with the Atlanta Community Food Bank, said the boundaries of eligibility have become so narrow that it’s difficult for many to qualify for benefits. And welfare has long been the target of reformers and condemned by lawmakers, making it all but impossible for politicians to even think about increasing spending on the program.

“Sadly,” she said, “that’s just not something we are able to look at as a broad lever for addressing poverty anymore.”

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