Have you ever wondered what the U.S. would look like it if were a failed state? And what sorts of skills you’d need in order to survive, and which government offices would function and which wouldn’t, and which aspects of society would collapse and which would manage to self-sustain? We have too, because it occasionally seems like a valuable mental exercise and it’s better safe than sorry. But now, we no longer have regard it as purely a theoretical scenario, because we seem to have an actual failed state right here in the U.S. of A, and (shocker) it is Georgia, where only 4,000 adults in Georgia have been able to qualify for welfare even though a shitload of people are poor.
First, a little context. Everything went to hell in 2008, and for a lot of people, the recession is still not over.
When the economy crashed in 2008, millions of Americans lost their jobs. Applications for food stamps soared. So did attendance at emergency food providers—soup kitchens and food pantries—that help the estimated 50 million people, working and non-working, who can’t afford enough groceries to get through the month.
Does that blow your mind, by the way? Because roughly 15% of American people, and 25% of American adults cannot afford enough groceries each month.
Unlike in past economic downturns, though, the welfare rolls barely budged. Where 15 years ago 68 percent of poor Americans received cash via Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (as welfare was officially renamed in 1996), today only 27 percent of Americans with incomes low enough to qualify for cash benefits receive them. As the New York Times’ Jason DeParle discussed in a front-page article earlier this year, the resulting welfare gap has left at least 4 million families with neither jobs nor cash aid.
The size of the welfare gap, however, varies widely from state to state. In states like California and Maine, which have focused on getting their poor citizens into jobs programs, about two-thirds of those eligible still receive welfare. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Georgia, which over the past decade has set itself up as the poster child for the ongoing war on welfare. Even as unemployment has soared to 9 percent and 300,000 Georgia families now live below the poverty line—50 percent higher than in 2000, for a poverty rate that now ranks sixth in the nation—the number receiving cash benefits has all but evaporated: Only a little over 19,000 families receiving TANF remain, all but 3,400 of which were cases involving children only. That’s less than 7 percent, making Georgia one of the toughest places in the nation to get welfare assistance.
No problemo, surely the private sector, or the church, or a charity, or Somebody Else will step in and help these people, or maybe they can just go on ahead and help themselves, THIS IS AMERICA and we are not communists who just give out handouts. Except charities and churches and Somebody Else don’t have enough money either, so all of these poor hungry people are going to stay poor and hungry until they manage to save up for bootstraps.
Beverly “B.J.” Walker, a 54-year-old black woman from Chicago, had been an obscure school curriculum consultant… when Republicans chose her to run a pilot project in 1995 to streamline state government services. Soon she rose to run Chicago’s welfare programs as well.
Once Walker arrived in Georgia, poverty experts there say she set out to overhaul the state’s TANF program with a single goal: not just getting people into jobs, but keeping them from getting benefits by any means necessary. New applicants soon found themselves being handed flyers emblazoned with slogans like “TANF is not good enough for any family,” “TANF = work now,” and “We believe welfare is not the best option for your family.”
Definitely, shaming people is the best way to keep them off TANF. No need to say, stimulate the economy or create welfare-to-work programs or WPA-like situations; nope, just shame people into working, and they’ll totally get a job. They are just HANDING OUT JOBS these days, didn’t you know?
“Local offices were really taking a lot of steps to dissuade people from applying—or once they had applied, they were doing things to make the process really cumbersome and difficult,” recalls Allison Smith of the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, whose office began documenting troubling reports of welfare applicants being discouraged from applying for benefits by any and all means necessary: “Making them go through 60 job searches a week, or come to 8 orientations.” One woman in her seventh month of pregnancy was ordered to take a waitressing job that would require her to be on her feet all day. Another was told that if she applied for TANF while living in a shelter her children would be taken away.
OK so turns out these are the items we will need if the U.S. turns into Georgia: we will need a day planner, so to keep track of our 60 job searches and 8 appointments per week. We will also need a car to get to said appointments, or alternatively, a functional system of public transportation. And we will need lots and lots of patience for to use while we listen to people tell us what is best for our families and how we should just go out and get one of those jobs that don’t exist.