Originally created 12/24/06

Welfare numbers causing concern



ATLANTA - Georgia has been the envy of other states for its success at trimming its welfare rolls, but critics point out that many who legitimately need help are no longer getting it.

Consider Victoria Butler.

It was early morning March 28 when she woke up in her Glynn County apartment as her ex-boyfriend slammed a hammer into her head. He was arrested and eventually sentenced to 20 years in prison, but she spent two months in the hospital, trying to learn how to walk again after an incident that initially left her paralyzed.

Her doctor told Ms. Butler not to work for at least a year and warned that she might not be able to do so even then.

So it was a surprise to Ms. Butler that an attempt to get a domestic violence waiver to allow her to collect welfare benefits without fulfilling the program's work requirements turned into a bureaucratic scuffle with local officials.

Advocates for victims of domestic violence were also surprised, saying Ms. Butler could have received a waiver because of her abusive situation or under exceptions for her disabilities.

"To me, that should be the easy case for the caseworker," said Shelley Senterfitt, an attorney in Atlanta and a counsel for the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

However, delays on the waiver, which states are required to offer under federal law, are part of a more sweeping and disturbing trend that advocates say is contributing to a sharp drop in the welfare caseload across Georgia. They say Human Resources Commissioner B.J. Walker, who came to Georgia in 2004, has ushered in an era when getting welfare recipients off the rolls is a key goal for the state's program.

Ms. Walker says she is trying to help welfare recipients get off the rolls and get jobs instead. She stresses that the amounts made by those receiving the payments - $265 a month for a woman with two children - makes getting those families to higher-paying jobs a priority.

"I'm going to say over and over again without any shame that it is absolutely unacceptable to me to decide that there are some people out there who can manage to live off of $265 a month with two children to care for," she said in an interview. "I don't accept it. I know it can't be done."

AFTER PRESIDENT CLINTON signed a far-ranging welfare reform bill in 1996, most states experienced a decline in their welfare numbers throughout the late 1990s, the combined effect of the tougher requirements from state and federal governments and a huge economic boom.

"Over time, that's leveled off in many states," said Liz Schott, a senior policy analyst at the Washington-based Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

Georgia's rolls kept declining.

In January 2002, a little more than two years before Ms. Walker took over the Department of Human Resources, the number of welfare cases stood at 56,331. By May 2004, when Gov. Sonny Perdue introduced Ms. Walker as the agency's new leader, that number had fallen to 53,436.

After that, a rapid decline began, as Georgia shed nearly half its cases in the next two years. By June 2006, there were 29,237 cases.

Much of the decline came from cases where there were adults receiving welfare along with children, the same cases where participation in some sort of work or work-related activity - education, job training or seeking employment - is required. Nearly 20,000 of those cases fell off the rolls between May 2004 and June 2006.

Because of the slide in the total number of cases, the percentage of those on the rolls working or in work-related activities increased, from 30.4 percent to 65.7 percent. But the number of welfare recipients working actually fell. It was cut by nearly two-thirds, from 6,810 to 2,708.

Those coming off the welfare rolls don't look like they're finding jobs elsewhere, Ms. Schott said. Less than half of those dropping off welfare are falling out of the program for a reason other than making too much money to qualify, and some still qualify for food stamps and Medicaid. But Department of Human Resources officials say there's a story behind those numbers. For a variety of reasons, some families don't tell the department why they're leaving welfare.

They point to a study the agency did in a portion of southwest Georgia. From March to April of this year, about 126 cases in the region were closed. Of those, about 27 percent were closed because of income.

Many of the families in the remaining cases stayed on food stamps - meaning they had to continue reporting income to get the food benefits. When those results were examined, well more than half were getting income from another source, whether it was family members they were living with, Social Security benefits or other programs.

Reach Brandon Larrabee at (404) 681-1701 or brandon.larrabee@morris.com.