Nicole’s story: How a raise meant losing food stamp benefits for this mom of four

Nicole’s story: How a raise meant losing food stamp benefits for this mom of four

Nicole’s story: How a raise meant losing food stamp benefits for this mom of four

correctional officer

Nicole had high hopes when she moved her family from a rural area in south Georgia to Henry County in the Atlanta metro. The cost of living went up, but the job opportunities were more plentiful and paid much better: She went from making $25,000 a year to over $35,000 as a corrections officer.

But that’s when Nicole got an unpleasant surprise. Her new salary level meant that her safety-net benefits from the government went entirely away—not reduced, but entirely eliminated. She ended up getting around a $10,000 raise but losing approximately $12,500 in benefits.

“I ended up getting kicked off social services because I made a couple dollars more than the max I could,” Nicole shared.

Nicole is 32 years-old and the single mother of four boys. “I’m the only income. I don’t get child support payments or anything else,” she said.

Losing her benefits—particularly food stamps—was a severe blow, especially during the pandemic. Although she has gotten help from local church-based food banks to help her make ends meet, her situation is still stressful.

To further bridge the gap, Nicole is working as much overtime as possible. But she would need to earn significantly more—to the tune of $25 an hour—in order to fully make up for the benefits she has lost. Even in an economy where wages are quickly rising for many workers, that raise level is a tough haul.

 

What needs to change?

Nicole encountered what we call the “benefit cliff,” where well-intentioned policies actually prevent people from getting off public services. They make just enough to lose their benefits, but not enough to make up for those lost benefits. The result is a system that keeps people trapped in poverty rather than one that propels them toward self-sufficiency and the dignity that comes with it.

While it is wonderful to see how the community has stepped up to help Nicole fill the gaps left from her losing access to food stamps, not everyone is so fortunate.

So, what’s the best pathway forward? Our goals should be to shore up the safety net for those who truly need it, eliminate these benefit cliffs, and create a system that encourages (rather than discourages) people from climbing the economic ladder. Along these lines, here are three possible ways forward:

 

  • The food stamp program could be fully redesigned to eliminate the benefit cliffs.

 

  • Separate pools of funds (from public, private, and charitable resources) could be set up as temporary stop-gap measures to get people like Nicole beyond the cliff.

 

  • Nicole could work with someone who understands the cliffs to help her strategize a career and pay progression to effectively jump over the cliff.

 

The Success Sequence provides an outline of how to reverse the cycle of poverty in our communities. GCO uses this as a framework for much of our work.

#DareToClimb media campaign

This is why the Georgia Center for Opportunity (GCO) recently launched the #DareToClimb media campaign. The campaign is designed to raise awareness and share stories of those trapped in government assistance programs that, while well-intentioned, are structured in a way that often does more harm than good. GCO believes it is important to share the stories of these courageous men and women who have overcome obstacles in their lives to achieve self-sufficiency.

To learn more, follow the #DareToClimb hashtag.

** The $35,000 income limit is based on Nicole’s interview with us. Although our calculations show it will be somewhat higher, the impact and stress she is experiencing will be the same.

 

Q&A with Curtis and Tonika on their experience in the Elevate class

Q&A with Curtis and Tonika on their experience in the Elevate class

Q&A with Curtis and Tonika on their experience in the Elevate class

The COVID-19 pandemic has put stress and strain on peoples’ relationships like few other times. In this challenging environment, the Georgia Center for Opportunity has stepped up to be involved in a new series of relationship enrichment classes called Elevate for Couples.

Below is a Q&A with Curtis and Tonika, two graduates of the Elevate class who share their experiences and takeaways.

Q: Please introduce yourselves—your background, current work, and family life?

Tonika: We are a mixed family of five children. We’ve been married for two years in June and we dated for three and a half years. We met through a mutual friend, my son’s barber. When I met my husband, he had custody of his four children from a previous marriage. So he brought four to the team and I brought one. It took me a while to get over the whole shenanigans of the kids, but we were friends.

What won me over was just watching him with his children just take care of the spiritual, education, just everything. I watched him do this effortlessly. He has a heart of gold, because most people would run away.

For work, I’ve actually been a nurse practitioner for about two years. I’ve been a nurse for 16 years. We recently moved to the Atlanta area about almost two years ago now. We come from middle Georgia in Macon and Milledgeville.

Curtis: I did accounting for 15 years and then I transitioned about three years ago into chaplaincy. So I’m a chaplain for a hospice company here in Atlanta.

Q: Heading into the Elevate class, what were some of the most significant challenges and stressors in your relationship?

Curtis: For me, the biggest thing was striving to navigate through a blended family. I was hoping to gain some insights on how to navigate that in a healthy way. That was really, really important to me. The class did offer me some insights that I was able to extract. Marriage within itself is a challenge, coupled with children is another challenge. But in a blended family, they don’t teach you that in school.

Tonika and I are similar in our love for Christ, in our career aspirations, and things of that nature. But our biggest struggle is the blended family component when it comes to the children.

Q: What parts of the Elevate class did you find most useful?

Curtis: What was most useful for me was the opportunity to reflect upon myself—just the place and space that I am in as an individual. That matters a lot. Because at the end of the day, I have no control over what comes out of somebody else’s mouth or the actions that they choose to display. But I do have complete control over how I respond and the things I choose to do. So each session afforded me the opportunity to just reflect—what are my growing areas? What am I missing? What are my blind spots?

Q: Of the seven core relationship skills and qualities for success, which one did you find most impactful for your own relationship?

Tonika: For me it was “engage.” It’s easy to forget about engagement with a busy day-to-day life. For me, it helped remind me of what’s most important. You have to make it a priority or it’ll just be on the list.

Q: Overall, how did Elevate improve your relationship?

Curtis: It afforded me a better understanding of Tonika. Just pausing enough to even consider her perspective. I think that was big for me. I honestly try to do that and she’ll be the first one to tell you I get it wrong a lot. I can make my mind up about something really fast. I’m very flexible, I’m very optimistic. One of my excuses is that I don’t make excuses, I make adjustments. I make it work. That’s just how I’ve been raised. But I can’t automatically project that onto Tonika. I have done that in the past, and it’s 100% wrong of me. Now, I consider her thoughts, her framework, and her narrative.

Q: What are your future goals and plans?

Tonika: I want us to continue to build, to continue to grow, continue to understand each other. Just grow individually and collectively in marriage. Always seek to better ourselves and our marriage. There is no cap to that—we’ll never get it right all the time. You always need to be building upon that.

Curtis: Balance and then a healthy life. I definitely want to continue to see personal growth. I often tell my kids that the only person I’m in competition with is striving to be a better person than who I was yesterday. I also want balance. I’m at that place where everything can’t be a priority. A lot of things that used to matter to me don’t really matter anymore.

The Elevate program is being provided to couples across Georgia thanks to a federal grant received by the Fostering Relationship and Economic Enrichment Project (Project F.R.E.E.).

Project F.R.E.E. is a collaboration between the University of Georgia Extension System and community partners across Georgia. Our aim is to create communities where children are safe and thrive. To do this, our campus-community partnership initiative is mobilizing a network of organizations who connect, learn and collaborate to integrate healthy marriage and relationship education into existing community-based services across Georgia.

 

Taking Your Relationship To The Next Level!

Empower Yourself: Empower your relationship through empowering yourself
Lay the Foundation: Intentionally committing effort to lay the foundation for a lasting relationship
Enlighten: Sharing intimate information with your partner to enlighten each other about your relationship
Value: Value and respect the positive aspects of your partner and your relationship
Attach: Cultivating and maintaining friendship with your partner                                                                                                                   Tame: Cultivate strategies to manage your differences in healthy and safe ways                                                                                              Engage (and Wrap Up): Engaging social support, community ties, and sources of meaning

 

 

Origins of the Georgia Center for Opportunity: Why we focus on education

Origins of the Georgia Center for Opportunity: Why we focus on education

Origins of the Georgia Center for Opportunity: Why we focus on education

HS students

If you’ve been following the work and mission of the Georgia Center for Opportunity (GCO), you’ve probably heard us talk about the Success Sequence. It’s a proven model to alleviate poverty that says a good education leads to a stable job, which in turn leads to stronger families that provide the best context for individuals to reach their God-given potential and build thriving communities.  

This is why GCO has long focused on expanding educational opportunities as the key to changing lives and breaking the cycle of generational poverty that has trapped far too many—for far too long.  

Even in the mid-1990s—when we first got involved with charter school legislation—we were keenly aware that while some Georgia students had access to excellent education opportunities, most living in low-income areas did not. And tragically, it’s the kids from low-income families who most often are stuck in failing public schools—setting them up for a lifetime of failure and dependency.

Fast forward to 2007, when GCO played a key role in building on the charter school law to create the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Program. As Georgia’s first private choice program, these scholarships allow families to send their special needs children to schools that best meet their academic needs. And the growth of the Special Needs Scholarship has been impressive. As of the 2019-2020 school year, there were 5,203 students in 254 schools across Georgia benefitting from the program—with vouchers averaging $6,838 per student. 

The following year, we were instrumental in working with state legislators to pass the Georgia Qualified Education Expense Tax Credit. This program offers tax credits to corporate and individual donors supporting nonprofit student scholarship organizations (SSOs) that provide private school scholarships to students in need. Now a $100 million program, it, too, has been widely embraced—enabling many children from low-income, working-class, and minority families to attend private schools to better meet their academic needs. As of 2019, 22 SSOs have awarded 16,358 scholarships averaging $4,560—representing 38% of public school spending per student. 

 

 

The Success Sequence provides an outline of how to reverse the cycle of poverty in our communities. GCO uses this as a framework for much of our work.

Beyond our schools, GCO has also been a key player for many years to help adults get the training they need to enter the workforce—and stay employed. Through various apprenticeship programs and our Hiring Well, Doing Good (HWDG) program—now called Better Work—we continue to focus on ensuring that students and job seekers have the tools they need to land a job that meets the demands of a rapidly changing workforce. Unique among back-to-work programs, Better Work is a catalyst connecting employers to local and state chambers of commerce, vocational colleges, nonprofits, and churches.

While there’s no doubt that GCO has played a key leadership role in removing barriers so that every person—no matter their race, past mistakes, or birth circumstances—has access to a quality education, fulfilling work, and a healthy family life, there’s still more to do. 

Looking forward, we will continue to call for further expansion of the tax-credit and special needs scholarship programs, which transform lives and are widely embraced by Georgians regardless of socioeconomic status, race, zip code, and political affiliation. 

And we will keep pressing for Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), which would offer much-needed flexibility and assistance to students from low-income families, those adopted from foster care, children of active duty military, students with an Individualized Education Program, and those with a documented history of being bullied.

The good news is that Georgians from all backgrounds are clamoring for more educational options. And if there’s a bright spot to the pandemic, it’s that parents—and legislators alike—are more open than ever to creative solutions that provide more quality education options that put people on the path to success for life. 

One recent example is federal funding through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEERS), which provides assistance to local educational agencies, institutions of higher education, and other education related entities impacted by the coronavirus. This includes providing child care and early childhood education, social and emotional support, and protection for education-related jobs.

The bottom line is that people want more freedom. And it is education that opens doors to fulfilling work, which impacts individuals for the rest of their life—the Success Sequence in a nutshell.

 

 

Origins of the Georgia Center for Opportunity: Why we choose to focus on work

Origins of the Georgia Center for Opportunity: Why we choose to focus on work

Origins of the Georgia Center for Opportunity: Why we choose to focus on work

You’ve probably heard that if you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day—but if you teach him to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime. And while the Georgia Center for Opportunity’s (GCO) mission to alleviate poverty by removing barriers to human flourishing is grounded in the three core areas of family, jobs, and education, we know from years of experience that helping people secure meaningful work—teaching them to fish—is key to breaking the chains of generational poverty and building thriving communities. Work is about more than a job. It’s a key pathway to human dignity.

How did we learn this?   

In our early years—even before we changed our name to GCO—we were working closely with Neighborhood Planning Unit 5 (NPU-V) in downtown Atlanta. Here, the initial focus was on reforming the criminal justice system because nearly one-in-three men in this community had been incarcerated. 

As returning citizens most of these men were wholly unprepared to return to their communities. And with few-to-no job skills, they faced enormous challenges in finding—and holding onto—work. Not surprisingly, this set them up to return to a life of crime, with a high likelihood of going back to prison.

Given this devastating cycle of recidivism, GCO saw the need to work with community leaders, criminal reform experts, and state legislators to help former prisoners successfully re-enter society and learn how to become productive members of society. We also worked on public policy reforms to make it easier for returning citizens to obtain work:

    • Access to a driver’s license
    • Access to occupational licensing despite a felony conviction
    • Rehabilitation certification
    • Protections for employers who hire returning citizens

We modeled our approach off a sister organization in the United Kingdom called the Centre for Social Justice. Led by former Member of Parliament Iain Duncan Smith, this award-winning organization worked with gangs and achieved success with legislators to enact social welfare policy reforms to help people reach their full potential. 

And since research showed that holding a job for at least six months reduced the rate of recidivism by more than two-thirds, we developed relationships with key leaders in the executive, legislative and judicial branches of state government—as well as with local nonprofit, business and community leaders—to reduce recidivism by developing our ground-breaking BETTER WORK program in Gwinnett County and in Columbus.

The Success Sequence provides an outline of how to reverse the cycle of poverty in our communities. GCO uses this as a framework for much of our work.

The heart of BETTER WORK is collaborating closely with local businesses to hire ex-prisoners, offer job training and employment support, and do something good not only for the company, but the community as well. And since our first event in Atlanta in 2017—involving leading employers like Georgia Pacific, Uber and Tip Top Poultry—BETTER WORK events have expanded to other communities in Gwinnett County, Columbus, and beyond.

Beyond helping people find good jobs with employers in local communities, we continue to advocate on policy issues that keep people out of the legitimate job market, including child support challenges, relief from fees and penalties incurred while incarcerated, occupational licensing hurdles, and civil asset forfeiture.

And we continue to build coalitions of nonprofits, faith groups, and businesses to teach folks how to fish so that they are not reliant on government handouts. As always, our mission is to help people support themselves—and provide for their families in ways that break the cycle of poverty and create new trajectories that lead to individual and community transformation.

 

Origins of the Georgia Center for Opportunity: Why we choose to focus on healthy families

Origins of the Georgia Center for Opportunity: Why we choose to focus on healthy families

Origins of the Georgia Center for Opportunity: Why we choose to focus on healthy families

As an organization whose mission is to alleviate poverty in communities across Georgia, we are sometimes asked why we choose to focus on healthy families. After all, some of the most contentious flash points in our culture today center on the divergent views Americans hold about the definition of marriage and the role of family in society. 

This is why many groups working on poverty alleviation sidestep the crucial role that family plays as the bedrock of society and instead focus on resolving the presenting symptoms of poverty—as important as they are—rather than the root causes.    

But back in 2005, the Georgia Center for Opportunity (GCO) was asked to participate in a healthy marriage initiative. In considering our involvement, we looked at the research on stable, intact, two-parent households and saw that this type of family structure is optimal when looking at a wide variety of social metrics—including poverty alleviation. 

And while there’s no doubt that single parents often do a great job raising children who become highly productive members of society, the data clearly show superior outcomes for children who come from loving, low-conflict, two-parent households—and that this family structure is key to dismantling generational poverty and building thriving communities. 

The bottom line is that while poverty can still be experienced in the context of two-parent households, it’s less likely to happen than in single-parent households. And as a root cause for poverty, we knew we had to focus on building healthy families if we wanted to help individuals flourish—and strengthen our communities and state.  

This is why GCO has invested heavily over the years in programs that offer relationship education to men and women. And this is why we have worked hard to build coalitions of nonprofits, faith groups, and local businesses to go into communities and lovingly address factors that destabilize marriage and family like divorce, out-of-wedlock births, and domestic violence.

The Success Sequence provides an outline of how to reverse the cycle of poverty in our communities. GCO uses this as a framework for much of our work.

Learn more about the impact GCO is making on families within our state. 

To this end—thanks to a federal grant from the Bush Administration—we were able to offer training to help couples overcome barriers and strengthen their relationships. Through this healthy marriage initiative, we certified 1,000 trainers to go out into their communities and teach more than 5,000 couples how to improve the quality of their relationship and stabilize their families.  

Today, GCO continues to move forward with a holistic and comprehensive solution to poverty that takes aim at its root cause—family instability. And while we continue to offer relationship education, we have expanded our focus beyond romantic relations with our Healthy @ series that works with churches, schools and businesses to examine healthy relationships in other areas of life, including education and work. 

Our goal at GCO has always been to remove barriers to human flourishing. And as we know through the PERMA model that an underlying barrier to overcoming poverty is improving the quality of relationships. 

By focusing on healthy families, GCO helps people recognize and regulate their emotions, learn how to effectively communicate with family members, identify unhealthy behaviors and relationships, and establish appropriate boundaries. More than anything else, learning these skills changes the trajectory of individual lives. And this is how generational poverty is defeated and communities are transformed—one life at a time.