Vulnerable kids have been hardest hit by COVID-19 learning losses. We need to get educational options to their families

Vulnerable kids have been hardest hit by COVID-19 learning losses. We need to get educational options to their families

Vulnerable kids have been hardest hit by COVID-19 learning losses. We need to get educational options to their families

By David Bass

There has been much focus—and rightly so—on the nearly 370,000 victims of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., plus the millions more who have been touched by this terrible disease in some way

What hasn’t gotten as much attention are the unseen victims of the pandemic: The tens of millions of low-income, vulnerable students who have experienced devastating learning losses due to school closures and lack of educational options.

Highlighting this disturbing trend, McKinsey & Company recently put out an assessment of student learning outcomes during COVID-19 school closures. The results are bleak: Students of color are about three to five months behind in learning, while white students are one to three months behind.


Worsening educational inequities 

The sad reality is that virtual learning tends to favor wealthier, whiter families who have access to the types of resources needed to make this environment successful. Families of means have the resources to purchase whatever educational resources they deem necessary—from private-school tuition to individual tutors to new equipment to having one parent cut back their work hours in order to serve as a learning facilitator at home. 

 Low-income families don’t have these options. Many of them lack access to even basic reliable Internet or a desktop or laptop computer, not to mention a quiet place to learn and active parental involvement.


More options needed right now

A common refrain here at the Georgia Center for Opportunity when it comes to education is this: We can’t afford to wait another date to bring real options to Georgia students. The COVID-19 pandemic has only added to the urgency.

2020 has come and gone, and sadly it is too late to stem the tide of learning losses for our most vulnerable populations. But we can do new things in 2021 to help struggling students.

It begins by providing access to the widest range of educational options possible—to give immediate access to these options for all families regardless of income, zip code, or race. That option might look like a locally zoned public school, a charter school, a private school, or a home school. 

Some parents feel most comfortable keeping their children home in an exclusively virtual learning environment. Others want their kids back in school full-time. The need is for options, not top-down declarations or one-size-fits-all approaches. This means that schools must reopen for families who feel comfortable returning their children to in-classroom instruction.

If our goal is truly to achieve educational equity regardless of income or neighborhood, then expanded options are essential, now more than ever.


Story: Joyelle got an education, a job, and a promotion. She never expected her success would mean this

Story: Joyelle got an education, a job, and a promotion. She never expected her success would mean this

Story: Joyelle got an education, a job, and a promotion. She never expected her success would mean this. . .

Joyelle never expected to be a position where the very system she thought was a safety net ultimately failed her.


After fleeing an abusive relationship, this single mother of four ended up in public housing in Lawrenceville, Georgia. Until that point, Joyelle had never relied on welfare for help. She always paid her rent on time and made ends meet. So, falling back on public housing was an entirely new scenario for her. It was not where or how she wanted to live, or where she wanted her four children to grow up. 

That’s why she was determined to get back on her feet. She graduated from school and was offered a full-time job with the state of Georgia, a career trajectory that put her above the poverty line. Things were looking up. 

“I was excited and grateful,” Joyelle says. “I had worked hard: I started out with the state as a student assistant and worked my way up.”


Falling over the benefits cliff

But that’s when Joyelle got a shocking surprise: Due to her new salary, her subsidized housing allowance disappeared and she was forced to pay almost $1,000 a month in rent.

“I was heartbroken,” she says of learning that she was losing her housing subsidy. “You work hard. They tell you to go to school and get a job. You do all these things, and you’re still not able to provide for your family. That’s devastating. I suffer from anxiety. It causes stress. It causes severe depression.”

She now faces the difficult decision of looking to move but being unable to afford apartment rent even with her salary increase.



Hindering upward mobility

Joyelle encountered what we call the “benefit cliff,” where well-intentioned policies actually prevent people from getting off public services. They make just enough to not qualify for services, but not enough to make up for the services lost in extra income. 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.

“There’s no help for people like me, stuck in the wealth gap,” Joyelle shares. “You have help, but if you help yourself you’re faced with adversities that you shouldn’t be faced with.”

We believe that these services should move people into a prosperous life, not keep them stuck in cycles of dependency. Visit to learn more about ways to end benefits cliffs so that more Georgians can prosper.


Statement from GCO president Randy Hicks on 2020 election results

Statement from GCO president Randy Hicks on 2020 election results

Statement from GCO president Randy Hicks on 2020 election results

Election night is over and the results of the presidential race are still in question, with final calls in a number of key swing states hanging in the balance. Any other year, this would be an anomaly. But we’ve come to expect the unexpected in 2020, a year that has seen searing social strife, suffering, and pain through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unfortunately, the most rancorous election of our lifetimes will continue as election officials continue to tally votes across the states. But in the midst of a chaotic political season, devastating pandemic, and heartbreaking racial strife, I’m reminded of this simple truth that we live our lives by each and every day here at the Georgia Center for Opportunity: The role of government is important, but the most impactful changes occur in our homes, neighborhoods, and communities. It is there that lives are formed and, when things go badly, where lives are transformed. And it’s there that neighbors, businesses, communities of faith, schools, and non-profits can come together in local unified action.

Politics and policy do matter, but ultimately they are not the main driving force that moves the needle when it comes to people’s lives. That must come from you and me—rolling up sleeves and working alongside others who may or may not have voted like we did, but who share a belief that everyone deserves the opportunity to achieve a better life, regardless of their race, the circumstances of birth, or past mistakes.

In the end, no one needs to wait for election results or the government in order to have an impact at the community level. And no one needs to let election results keep them from doing good on behalf of others.

So, our mission continues, both at a policy level and community level. We remain thankful to live in the United States of America and to call Georgia our home.

Not for self, but for others.


New GCO poll: 81% of parents support educational microgrants during COVID-19

New GCO poll: 81% of parents support educational microgrants during COVID-19

New GCO poll: 81% of parents support educational microgrants during COVID-19


By David Bass

The Georgia Center for Opportunity (GCO) today released the results of a parent opinion poll that found 81 percent of respondents in favor of using federal emergency relief funds to help parents cover some educational costs during the coronavirus pandemic.

The poll, taken of a random sample of 721 Georgia parents, also found that such microgrants would encourage parents to make alternative educational decisions for their children: 59 percent of respondents reported that a one-time microgrant of $1,000 would either prompt them to send their child to a different school or help out in their existing decision to do so.

Recently, a coalition of education reformers sent a letter to Gov. Brian Kemp urging him to use the remaining portion of the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Fund to directly support students through the challenges of virtual learning. Currently in Georgia, the governor’s office is the only entity in the state with the ability to provide families with this desperately needed help.

The poll results back up what we already know: Offering direct payment assistance to Georgia families is the best way to keep vulnerable students from falling further behind during this crisis. A one-size-fits-all approach to education never works. We must offer as many families as possible maximum flexibility in their education decisions this year. Empowering parents directly with funds puts them in the driver’s seat and cuts out bureaucratic obstacles. This step simply takes available additional federal funds and gives parents the most help, the fastest, right when they need it the most.

Megan and teacher at table

A Survey Of How The Average Georgia Family Is Navigating Education During The Pandemic

These microgrants would help students like Hannah Foy, a 13-year-old with Down syndrome. Hannah has been isolated at home since March and is falling behind. “Putting education dollars directly into the hands of parents means that our children have a greater chance of not falling behind,” wrote Hannah’s mother, Elizabeth, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The funds will come nowhere close to meeting the needs of students like my daughter, but they will help to bridge the gap until schools can fully reopen again.

Other key findings from the poll include:

  • 57 percent said their children learned “far less” or “somewhat less” than they had when they were in their pre-shutdown school.

  • Only 12 percent of respondents said their school did “badly” or “very badly” during the coronavirus crisis. Thirty-three percent were neutral and 55 percent said their school did “well” or “very well.”

  • Only 18 percent of respondents thought that their schools did not provide enough resources to their children.

  • 33 percent thought that there was “much work” or “far more work than I imagined it would be” to teach their children because of the shutdown.

  • Only 6 percent are considering homeschooling their children when last year they were not home schooled.

The Unintended Consequences of Generous Unemployment Benefits

The Unintended Consequences of Generous Unemployment Benefits


 The unintended consequences of generous unemployment benefits 


By David Bass



This year has seen some of the most generous unemployment benefit checks since the Great Recession in 2007-2009—and with good reason. As the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has put 20 million Americans out of work, and over half-a-million right here in Georgia, the need for robust help is pressing. 

Currently, the maximum weekly unemployment benefit available in Georgia is $665, a combination of $365 in state compensation and $300 in federal dollars (due to a recent executive order from President Trump). Earlier this year, the total package was even more generous at $965 due to $600 in federal unemployment checks (a benefit amount that expired on July 31).

This means that an unemployed individual could qualify for the equivalent of a $16.63 per-hour job right now. Not every worker will qualify for this maximum amount because unemployment insurance payments are based on recent earnings over a 52-week period. According to U.S. Department of Labor data, Georgia’s average unemployment is closer to $225 a week, for a combined value of $525 per week when mixed with federal dollars.

What’s more, the federal $300 per-week payments are only guaranteed for three weeks, although it is likely unemployed individuals will receive them for a longer period of time. Also, workers who are receiving less than $100 per week in state unemployment payments are ineligible for the $300 federal payments, meaning that many low-income, part-time, or seasonal workers will likely not qualify.


Do higher unemployment payments have unintended impacts?

These more generous unemployment payments raise an important question: Are there unintended consequences? The answer is clearly yes.

As scholars with the American Enterprise Institute have documented, generous unemployment checks contribute to both delays in workers re-entering the economy and ultimately the economic rebound itself. Workers are not to blame—if your only job options pay less than unemployment compensation, it makes sense to delay joining the workforce again. In many situations, this is the case: One analysis from the University of Chicago concluded that two-thirds of workers eligible for unemployment benefits would receive a benefit amount that exceeds their previous pay.

These unintended impacts are another example of a welfare cliff, the idea that welfare programs often punish efforts to work—due to dramatic drops or “cliffs” in benefits as a recipient’s income increases, even by just cents per hour. For more information on welfare cliffs, visit


Georgia employers are feeling the crunch

If our goal with unemployment insurance is to serve as a bridge for workers during hard times to propel them back into employment, then our current response is not working properly.

Buffalo Rock Pepsi in Columbus, Georgia, shared with the Georgia Center for Opportunity team that it has had a challenging time this year filling positions for warehouse workers and warehouse coordinators. The resulting shortage of workers has put a strain on existing staff.

Ankerpak—a third-party packaging, fulfillment, and storage facility also based in Columbus—is experiencing similar roadblocks. The company has struggled to fill assembly line positions, and it identifies the high value of unemployment benefits as a primary reason. “Due to challenges presented by lack of staffing, we are nearly 20 people short on a regular basis. We are unable to meet our customers’ demands and/or deadlines, putting us at risk of losing business during these trying times,” the Ankerpak team shared with us.


A way forward

We are not advocating against unemployment insurance or proposing cuts, but it’s clear the existing system has unintended negative impacts. Ultimately, the right question to ask is this: What is the purpose of a public service like unemployment insurance? If it is to truly be a safety net, we must address the problem of when a safety net becomes a snare to keep hard-hit populations trapped in cycles of poverty.

Any true solution to this problem must be local and homegrown. This is where Hiring Well, Doing Good (HWDG) comes in. HWDG connects local job seekers with the training and support needed to not just find a job, but a job that leads to a sustainable wage and a meaningful career. Cooperating on a local level, HWDG brings together individuals, companies, nonprofits, and other service providers to solve unemployment and help people achieve a flourishing life.

Ultimately, the goal of unemployment insurance should be as a bridge to return to the workforce. Local initiatives like HWDG are a catalyst for that return reentry into the labor force in a better job with an upward trajectory.



Based on the most recent 2015 data, this report provides an in-depth look at the welfare cliffs across the state of Georgia. A computer model was created to demonstrate how welfare programs, alone or in combination with other programs, create multiple welfare cliffs for recipients that punish work. In addition to covering a dozen programs – more than any previous model – the tool used to produce the following report allows users to see how the welfare cliff affects individuals and families with very specific characteristics, including the age and sex of the parent, number of children, age of children, income, and other variables. Welfare reform conversations often lack a complete understanding of just how means-tested programs actually inflict harm on some of the neediest within our state’s communities.