In 2004, the state hired a new Department of Human Services commissioner whose overriding goal was to get people off of welfare. Not to make them not need it, just to keep them from receiving it. (Again, in the spirit of welfare reform.) Under her leadership, 60 percent of those who had been receiving benefits—a number that had already plunged in the immediate wake of welfare reform—dropped out of the program, and the percentage of applications approved dropped from 40 percent to 20 percent. Today, Georgia receives $330 million a year from the federal government for TANF, but it doesn't go to TANF:
Instead, according to a September 2012 study by the nonprofit Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, the state has found ways to use TANF money to paper over other program budgets, with more than half of Georgia's welfare funds being siphoned off to pay for the state's unrelated child welfare program. This maneuver, which is allowed under federal law, has effectively saved the state hundreds of millions of dollars that it would otherwise have to cover with tax revenues. [...]So Georgia's brutal limits on aid give rise to the need for more private charity, which Georgia then counts as fulfilling the state's mandates. Food stamps, though, are another matter: because the federal government continues to pay directly for that, Georgia is perfectly happy for people to get nutritional assistance.
To ensure that states didn't just cash their federal TANF checks without spending anything on the poor, Congress added another requirement, the so-called "maintenance of effort" requirements that would cut funds to states that didn't devote enough money to anti-poverty programs. Earlier this year, a study by the federal General Accountability Office revealed that Georgia was counting private spending by nonprofit food banks and similar private charities to account for nearly half of the state's own required welfare spending targets—more than double the percentage of almost any other state.
These rock-bottom numbers of people receiving cash aid are achieved by a commitment to humiliate and abuse people in need. People like Teresa, who was berated by welfare officers for applying for benefits while she was living in a domestic violence shelter with her two-year-old. Or like Cassie, the single mother of a child with a rare blood disorder, who had to drop out of school, where she was training to be an ultrasound sonographer, to meet the job search requirements for TANF—getting an education so you can get a better job is no part of the priorities of Georgia's welfare system.
Georgia is not alone in these low numbers, though it's close to the bottom. But we have to see this fundamentally as a federal problem. Of course Georgia and Mississippi and Idaho are going to behave like this if you let them. And in 1996, that's just what the federal government did—turned the states loose to act on their worst and cruelest impulses, to keep a boot on the neck of anyone trying to climb up from poverty through education, to say that women with young children fleeing abusive relationships should be working for minimum wage right now or else.