Scathing article targets state welfare system

A single mother, 19, with no income and a 10-month-old baby, applies for monthly $235 welfare checks in DeKalb County.

But because she has no child care for her daughter, Brianna Butler cannot satisfy the state requirements that she attend job-applicant classes.

The Huffington Post’s Peter S. Goodman, in an article last week, spotlighted Butler’s predicament in a stark, in-depth portrait of the Georgia welfare system.

Gaining cash assistance has become increasingly difficult in Georgia and many other states since 1996, when President Bill Clinton signed landmark welfare reform legislation. And especially in the past few years, with the overall economy weakening, poverty has increased in Georgia.

Between 1996 and 2010, the number of families with poor children in Georgia nearly doubled, yet at the same time, the percentage of Georgians poor families with children who were receiving cash assistance dropped from 98 percent to 8 percent, the article said.

Georgia Department of Human Services officials could not be reached by GHN for comment on the article.

Ann Carter, the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) unit manager at the agency, told the Huffington Post that the drop in welfare recipients ‘‘is good news.’’

“The goal is to remove them to self-sufficiency, and as soon as possible,’’ she said.

“Once we explain the program, the majority of people are going to withdraw their applications because of the work requirements,’’ Carter told the Huffington Post.

The article reported that Butler said repeatedly that she wants to work. But jobs have been hard to get since the economic downturn.

Last year, Georgia’s unemployment rate hovered near 10 percent, but the number of applications for cash assistance was down by half from 2004, when the state’s population was smaller and its economy much better.

Why would fewer people seek help when times are worse? Social Services agencies told the Post that welfare office staffers actively discourage people from applying for welfare.

“They’re not giving out TANF anymore,’’ Allison Smith, director of public policy for the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said in the Post article.

“Nobody gets on in Georgia,’’ said LaDonna Pavetti, of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. (Here’s a link to the Huffington Post article. Some of the content in the story may anger or disturb some readers.)

Poverty has a profound effect on health, research has shown.

Dante McKay of the advocacy group Voices for Georgia’s Children, when asked by GHN to comment on the Post story, said, “Studies show that poverty negatively influences child health and development in a number of ways, including infant mortality [and] greater risk of injury from accidents or physical abuse or neglect.’’

Dr. Harry Heiman, director of health policy for the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at the Morehouse School of Medicine, said Tuesday that poverty and education ‘‘are the two most important drivers of health.’’

“Children growing up in an impoverished community have fewer educational opportunities,’’ Heiman said. And the level of education is strongly correlated with a well-paying job, he added.

Poor neighborhoods often are food deserts, where access to fresh food and vegetables is lacking, he noted.

The government supports poor families through programs such as Medicaid, food stamps and WIC, Heiman said. But tight state budgets have put pressure on that safety net, he said.

Earlier this year, the state Legislature erected another hurdle for would-be welfare recipients: drug testing. Low-income adults seeking public assistance will have to pass a drug test before receiving benefits under the measure, which was signed by Gov. Nathan Deal in April.

Supporters said the new law puts welfare applicants on the same footing as people who must take drug tests to get jobs. “The ultimate goal is to give people a hand up, not a handout,’’ Sen. John Albers (R-Roswell) said of the law.

The new Georgia law is expected to trigger a legal fight over its constitutionality.