ATLANTA - The number of adult Georgians on welfare has dropped 21 percent in the past two years, thanks in part to a strong economy and state programs aimed at putting recipients to work.
However, state lawmakers Tuesday voiced concern about the estimated 22,000 Georgians - including 14,000 children - who will likely stay on welfare for five years and then be cut off cash payments under the recently signed federal welfare reform law.
Senate Health and Human Services Chairman Charles Walker, D-Augusta, said the most commonly asked welfare reform question in his district is what happens to recipients who don't, or can't, get a job.
"Most people, given the chance to be dependent or independent, would be independent," Mr. Walker said.
"I am concerned we'll create a permanent underclass," added Sen. Ed Harbison, D-Columbus, a member of the committee.
While reviewing welfare reform measures, Mike Thurmond, head of the Division of Family and Children Services, told committee members, "That's the group I think about the most. I think about 14,000 children who have no choice who they were born to.
"I don't have the answer. The point is, we have to go forward. It is the law, we have no choice."
The estimate is based on the count of Georgians who have been on welfare for five years and current caseload trends.
For now, the trend arrow is pointed down. Georgia has had a sustained two-year decline in welfare caseloads.
Between 1989 and 1994, welfare rolls in the state ballooned 55 percent. After continuing to rise through the first half of 1994, the numbers leveled off that fall.
In August 1994, Mr. Thurmond told the committee, there were 140,926 families on Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
AFDC recipients also qualify for free medical care through Medicaid and food stamps.
By last month, the caseload had fallen to 122,723, and the average monthly payment had dropped to $242. It was $262 a month in the early 1990s.
Mr. Thurmond said the number of adults receiving benefits has fallen 21 percent. In all, he added, 51,000 fewer Georgians are on welfare than two years ago.
The savings: $48.7 million.
Among the key factors:
- Welfare-to-work programs, such as Mr. Thurmond's Work First, which has changed the culture of welfare offices from payment centers to job search headquarters. "We don't need rooms for people waiting around to get welfare," he said.
- Increased state-supported child care for the working poor.
- Recent state laws mandating work, tougher stands against dead-beat parents and controls on young mothers. For instance, the state has refused to increase benefits for about 1,000 women who have been on welfare for years but continue to have children.
- The state's strong economy.
"We could not do this during a recession," he noted.
Mr. Thurmond acknowledged one of the state's major challenges will be to create a "trampoline" to replace the safety net currently afforded those who don't have jobs.
The new federal welfare law, signed by President Clinton last month, sets a lifetime cash assistance limit of five years, and doles out money to states in block grants.
It will be up to the state to decide how to handle those who reach that limit and still aren't supporting their family.
"Most people are concerned about the so-called safety net," Mr. Walker added. "The ball is in Georgia's court because this money is coming down with no strings attached."