The number of people receiving food stamps in Georgia has dropped by nearly 200,000 in less than a year, according to state numbers. File photo.

Work requirements a factor in decline of food stamp use in Georgia

The number of people receiving food stamps in Georgia has dropped by nearly 200,000 in less than a year, according to state figures.

As of March 31, nearly 1.38 million Georgians were receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, commonly known as food stamps, according to figures obtained from the Department of Family and Children Services by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. That’s down from more than 1.55 million in June 2018.

That drop-off is part of a steady decline in recipients since 2013, when the number of Georgians using food stamps peaked at 1.95 million.

State employees and advocates working with poor and low-income Georgians say the decline is the result of several factors — including the institution of work requirements for people the state has identified as able-bodied adults without dependents. The state has gradually reinstated work requirements in many urban and suburban counties over the past several years. It has led to a sharp decrease in enrollment in recent years.

The requirements are expected to be in place in all 159 of Georgia’s counties by the end of the year.

“The state of Georgia has always done a good job, I believe — within the bounds and restrictions the federal government gives us — in trying to make sure only the most needy receive the benefits,” said state Rep. Greg Morris, a Republican from Vidalia.

Mariely Lopez-Santana, an assistant professor who teaches welfare policy at George Mason University in Virginia, said a variety of factors led to the food stamp rolls dropping.

“When you look at the data for food stamps, what you will see is that people have moved from (welfare) to those types of programs,” Lopez-Santana said.

In 2008, as the recession was just beginning, there were fewer than 1 million people receiving food stamps in Georgia. That climbed annually to nearly 2 million people in 2013. Since 2013, the numbers have consistently fallen each year.

That’s an expected trend with recession and recovery, said Jon Anderson, the head of DFCS’ Office of Family Independence.

“Program rolls go up quickly during a recession,” he said. “It takes a few years for the rolls to come down again.”

Experts expect the number of people receiving food stamps will continue to drop as the improving economy begins to reach low-income earners.

Federal work requirements were passed in 1996 and require adults between the ages of 18 and 49 who are not disabled and who have no dependents to work at least 20 hours a week or be engaged in some sort of education or work training.

During the Great Recession, the federal government relaxed the requirement on work and the length of time people could be on food stamps in states with high unemployment. Georgia was one of the states with a statewide waiver, but over the past couple of years, the state has gradually removed them for counties across the state as the economy has improved and unemployment has fallen.

The state began reimplementing the work requirements in 2016 with Cobb, Gwinnett and Hall counties. In Georgia, where the work requirement is in place, those classified as “able-bodied adults” with no children get three months to find a job or training program or they lose their benefits.

In Georgia, only about 8% of the population receiving food stamps are able-bodied adults with no children, while 71% of food stamp recipients are families with dependent children. One-third of recipients are families with elderly or disabled members.

In the six months from October 2017 through March 2018, the state removed an average of 356 people a month from food stamps for failure to meet the work requirement.

Morris is glad to see it. “No able-bodied person without children should be receiving those benefits,” he said.

The average household benefit was $269 in June 2018. The state dispensed $2.4 billion in benefits to more than 700,000 households through the SNAP program in fiscal 2018.

Critics say work requirements are mean-spirited and often discount people who aren’t able to hold jobs because of mental health issues, undiagnosed medical problems or criminal records.

Alex Camardelle, a senior policy analyst with the left-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, said about 40% of Georgia counties are not back to pre-recession levels of employment.

“Over the past year, the economy has begun to level out in terms of employment,” Camardelle said. “We were 8% (unemployment) right around the recession. Now we’re just less than 4% … but those improvements are not even across the state.”

Lauren Waits, the director of government affairs with the Atlanta Community Food Bank, said her organization has seen that disparity in the economic recovery.

“Single adults have definitely been losing their SNAP benefits in significant numbers,” she said. “The drop in SNAP, however, in Georgia is still largely due to the recovering economy and people no longer being eligible because their incomes have increased.”

Waits said childless adults do not represent the bulk of the people losing access to SNAP benefits.

“They’ve enrolled in SNAP because of a crisis — someone loses a job or there’s a serious medical problem in the family,” she said. “They turn to SNAP knowing it’s going to be temporary, and as soon as they’re able to make ends meet they stop receiving the benefits.”

Though the economy is improving statewide, there are pockets across Georgia where poverty remains high.

Eden Purdy, the director of programs at North Fulton Community Charities, said her organization saw a 112% increase in the number of people receiving food stamps from 2016 to 2018.

“I don’t know why we’ve seen this bump in SNAP recipients,” she said of the Roswell-based organization. “And we’re seeing a longer delay in the approval process for SNAP benefits.”

Purdy said it’s expensive to live in north Fulton County. Her organization assists people who live in Roswell, Alpharetta, Johns Creek, Milton and Mountain Park — in what she calls areas with suburban poverty.

“For a family, we see that over 50% of their income goes toward housing expenses,” she said. “We provide a food pantry, but they’re already stretched to their limits. And rent prices and housing expenses continue to rise.”

Stay on top of what’s happening in Georgia government and politics at www.ajc.com/politics.

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