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Editorial: Stamping out support to those in need
Move to cut off food assistance for jobless aims to end dependence, but at a high cost
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While Hall County’s jobless rate lingers below 5 percent and many prosper from a growing economy, we see reminders that it’s never easy to be poor, even as government and nonprofit agencies work to keep the safety net pulled tight.

Ours is clearly a community of haves and have-nots, particularly in the city. U.S. Census Bureau figures show 32 percent of Gainesville’s population lived below the poverty line from 2009 to 2013, compared to 18 percent in the state. Some of those folks are being hit from all sides in a time when jobs are available but pay remains flat, affordable housing is hard to find and that safety net has some holes in it.

One obstacle is the loss of food stamp benefits. Georgia is looking to reinstate a rule limiting able-bodied adults with no dependents to just three months of food assistance within a three-year period unless they have a job or in training, enrolled in school or volunteering.

Hall, Gwinnett and Cobb counties were in a pilot program affecting some 5,000 people that has moved nearly half of those affected off food stamps. It now may expand statewide, where 1 in 5 Georgians are considered “food insecure,” according to the Georgia Food Bank Association.

Nearly 200 Hall County residents have lost their benefits since the first of the year out of 529 who were subject to being cut off if they did not meet the requirements. Another 100 could be affected in May. In all, some 7,500 households in Hall collected food stamps in 2014, according to census figures, receiving an average of $190 a month in assistance.

The state has $15 million in federal funds available to ease the transition of those weaned off the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. Job training programs are offered for those able to seek it. And residents squeezed out by the rule can appeal, the Georgia Legal Services Program offering free legal assistance.

But all this is aimed at people who have the ability and know-how to seek such help. Many who already are unemployable because of mental or physical disabilities can fall through the cracks altogether.

The ongoing debate is over how best to help people in need without keeping them on government assistance indefinitely. We understand the disdain for those who perpetually live off public funds, and we endorse the concept of moving people into full employment. Moving more people into productive lives benefits them while easing the burden on taxpayers.

“It’s not just going after poor people,” state Rep. Dave Clark, R-Buford, has said. “We have to find a way to motivate them.”

But we also must recognize there are no simple solutions. It’s easy to say “take away their food stamps” but harder to formulate a plan for what happens next.

While many can and should find work, others face educational, mental and physical limitations to landing jobs and still need a leg up. Some may be considered well enough to work by the state but not by those who are hiring. Older residents on fixed incomes can’t work and struggle to fend for themselves. And without a way to feed themselves, some may resort to crime or descend into substance abuse.

So how do we steer people from a life of dependency without taking away basic services they need? It’s easy to sneer when someone in the supermarket line has a basket full of snacks and pays with food stamps, but we don’t always know the back story. Without a roof over your head or a meal in your belly, heading out to find work is no simple task.

There also is evidence the cost of maintaining the program to verify work status may spend more money than what is saved by cutting benefits. The state Department of Family and Children’s Services says it could cost some $40 million to pay hundreds of case workers if the pilot program goes statewide. Shouldn’t that taxpayer money go to feed people rather than administrative costs? Otherwise any benefit to the bottom line is negligible.

Caring for those who lose food assistance then falls to nonprofits and local food pantries already struggling to meet growing demand. The Georgia Mountain Food Bank and its 59 partner agencies serve more than 47,000 residents across five counties. But even with increased donations, the need is greater than these agencies can handle over the long haul.

Adding to this mix of woes is how difficult it is for many to find affordable housing in Gainesville and Hall, where the average rent is $691 per month for a one-bedroom, $824 for two bedrooms. Even those who can scrape it together scramble to find homes that are safe and desirable in a city where 65 percent of residents are renters. Hall’s number of unsheltered homeless rose more than 50 percent from 2013-15, one of 10 Georgia counties with such an increase. Even with assistance, like the grants the Gainesville Housing Authority has secured, many can’t find apartments within their means away from crime-ridden areas.

A place to live and a couple of meals a day are a basic need some of our neighbors lack. Hall County is a great place to live and work, but only if you have a home and a job. Plugging the gap for the rest is a puzzle that remains elusive and expensive.

There are no easy answers but inescapable facts. Despite lives of plenty many of us take for granted, thousands live among us, both employed and jobless, with poverty, hunger and homelessness as harsh daily realities that no quick-fix political posturing can resolve.

To send a letter to the editor, use this form or send to letters@gainesvilletimes.com. The Times editorial board includes Publisher Charlotte Atkins, General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas. 

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