How to Take Away Something Positive from the COVID Crisis

How to Take Away Something Positive from the COVID Crisis

How to Take Away Something Positive from the COVID Crisis

By Kristin Barker

The year 2020 has been difficult for everyone. It has caused organizations and businesses to pivot from their planned strategies and shift quickly to identify new ones. It has forced individuals to find new career paths and create new support structures. It’s kept us from our families and isolated us from the communities we are used to counting on. In short, it has been one tough year.

It has been the most difficult year I have seen over my lifetime. But I will say it has also been inspiring. I have been inspired by the ability of our community and its leaders to come together. Leadership in Columbus has been able to connect in new and sometimes surprising ways to support and meet continually changing needs. 

Betsy Covington at the Community Foundation and Ben Moser at United Way acted very early in the year to coordinate COVID Response calls to keep Columbus connected, positive, and focused throughout much of this crisis year. Their efforts and the efforts of others to join hands and find out-of-the-box solutions in the moment has been very encouraging.

While seeing these efforts gives hope to myself and (I’m sure) to others, our Hiring Well, Doing Good (HWDG) partners also know there will be many additional challenges to address and emerging issues to tackle in the future. We began to talk about the shifts that were happening with our own efforts in Columbus. We heard about the new practices that our business and nonprofit partners were having to adopt and the heightened needs that continue to arise among the populations we serve. 

Our subcommittees began to ask, “What can we learn from our ability to pivot in 2020 that will allow us to react more effectively and responsively in 2021?” This question led us to develop a series of events focused on The Changing COVID Workforce

Our first event in this series will be held on January 21, 2021. This event will address Economic Forces During a Pandemic: How COVID is Shaping the Labor Market. During this event we examine the labor-supply gaps that exist and look at business policies and practices that impact workforce participation. This discussion will set the stage for later events and will consider the need for possible shifts in training and hiring practices. 

Our second event in the series will be on March 24 and will examine how we leverage our community assets to mitigate the impact of COVID. Betsy Covington and Ben Moser are going to speak during this event and help us think through what our community did really well in 2020. We will discuss how we can leverage what we have learned to navigate 2021 and to improve our community in the future. The final event on May 19 will focus on maintaining the strength of our workforce.

All three of these discussions will help us prepare to successfully repair our local economy in light of the COVID-related adjustments we have been forced to make along the way. We need to be sure that businesses (large and small) can prosper while keeping all people in our community safe and avoiding as much collateral damage from this virus as possible. 

There are also some existing issues that COVID has shined a light on. In comparison to other areas of the country, Columbus has very low average wages. This has created a situation locally where national stimulus efforts may harm our local economy disproportionately. In some cases, businesses have shared that their challenges in hiring additional labor have hamstrung their efforts to produce at scale or accept additional contracts. In other cases, employers have had to scale down production due to workforce restrictions. These situations open up an essential conversation about both average and living wages in Columbus, because it’s important for everyone to earn enough to support their families.

Ultimately, I see a heart at work in our community that is something I don’t believe you can find everywhere. There is a genuine and pervasive desire to work together for the common good. This is something special about Columbus, and I believe the Changing COVID Workforce event series will allow us to take greater advantage of our outstanding community spirit.


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.


As Georgia heads toward a pair of runoff elections for U.S. Senate, what happened to basic civility?

As Georgia heads toward a pair of runoff elections for U.S. Senate, what happened to basic civility?

As Georgia heads toward a pair of runoff elections for U.S. Senate, what happened to basic civility?

By David Bass

Where’s the Christmas cheer? 


That’s what I find myself asking as I look at all of the bitter partisan rancor surrounding Georgia’s pair of runoff elections for two U.S. Senate races. Civility has definitely taken a backseat to rage and bitterness this month in the Peach State as we march toward January 5, election day for the runoff (although early voting has already begun).


In the two races, incumbent Republican senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler face challenges from Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. The two races are the most important in recent memory because their outcome will determine whether Republicans or Democrats control the Senate beginning in 2021.


Here’s what’s getting lost amid all the political squabbling: When the dust settles and winners are declared, both sides will need to come together to work on solutions to our country’s challenges. But if we lose our dignity and sense of purpose in an effort to get our candidate elected, that kind of cooperation is far more challenging. Ultimately in that type of scenario, we will have lost regardless of the electoral outcome.


What’s more, it’s important to remember that our problems won’t magically disappear after the January 5 runoff. Thinking so is to believe that elected officials hold the absolute power to solve our problems. They don’t. 


The fact of the matter is that peoples’ lives meaningfully improve locally when neighbors help neighbors. That’s the key: Our neighbors, whom we’re treating so poorly right now in this election fight, will still be there after we know the election results. We’ll still need to love them, help them, to build better neighborhoods, communities, and ultimately a better Georgia.


That is a fundamental value of the team here at the Georgia Center for Opportunity. We put the dignity of people far above temporary election wins. We realize that in-fighting and partisan squabbling hurts people, when we should be looking for ways to cross the aisle to cooperate in an effort to reduce poverty, expand economic mobility, increase access to quality education options for all families, help people succeed in their relationships and families, and connect people with meaningful work.


We must remember the humanity of other people. We must understand that a difference of opinion does not diminish our inherent worth as human beings worthy of respect. We’re encouraging all Georgians to go vote in these crucial runoff elections, but don’t cast your ballot and call it a day. Let’s practice the Golden Rule: Loving our neighbors regardless of their politics and looking for ways to work together to find common solutions to the challenges we face.


In the end, I realize that Christmas cheer is alive and well across Georgia, evident in everyday acts of kindness, charity, and goodwill. We’ll still be helping our neighbors in the weeks leading up to January 5, and we’ll continue helping them in the weeks, months, and years that follow.


The Pandemic Doubles the Food Stamp Program Part 1

The Pandemic Doubles the Food Stamp Program Part 1

The Pandemic Doubles the Food Stamp Program

Part 1

By Erik Randolph

The monthly spending for food stamp benefits in Georgia nearly doubled since before the start of the pandemic. Surprisingly, only 45.3 percent of the increased spending is due to increased participation. The remaining 54.7 percent is due to enhanced benefits.

Congress Makes a New Food Stamp Rule

On March 18th, the U.S. Senate passed H.R. 6201 that the U.S. House of Representative passed just four days prior. President Donald J. Trump signed the bill that same day, making the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (P.L. 116-127) the second federal law to address the looming pandemic. 

The food stamp provisions in the law suspended work and work-training requirements and allowed states to request waivers to give recipients the maximum allotment for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the official name of the food stamp program. 

Along with all other states, Georgia requested and received a pandemic-SNAP waiver—P-SNAP for short. P-SNAP lasts as long as there is a declared health emergency by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, and the waivers are renewed on a monthly basis.

Here is what it means in practice: Currently, all households of the same size receive the exact same food stamp allotment. An eligible single mom with one child receives $374 a month in food stamp benefits, the same amount as every other eligible two-person household in Georgia, no matter what income the household earns. It does not matter if the single mom has no income or makes $22,400 annually, which is just below the gross income limit. She still receives $374 each month in benefits. 

Likewise, an eligible four-person household currently receives $680 each month no matter if the household has no income or $34,000 in income, which is also just below the gross income limit.

During normal times, DFCS calculates net income of the household by subtracting several deductions and allowances from a household’s gross income. Then, to determine the amount of the benefit, DFCS subtracts 30 percent of the calculated net income from the maximum allotment. 

Benefits and Costs 

The number of Georgia households participating in the food stamp program was 626,808 in February 2020. As of September, that total was 905,949 households—a 44.5 percent increase. The number of persons participating increased from 1,342,624 to 1,862,486 for a 38.7 percent increase. 

The regular issuance of food stamp benefits followed the increase in household participation. It increased from $163,247,601 to $236,170,166—a 44.7 percent increase. Although the average fluctuated as much as $10.58 on a month-to-month basis, the average household benefit was $260.44 in February compared to $260.69 in September, which are almost identical. 

However, P-SNAP enhanced the size of the payments to the participants. When combined with the regular issuance, the total benefits in September were $324,169,118 for a 98.6 percent increase, increasing the average household benefit to $357.82. Note that these numbers do not include $100,385,379 for free and reduced price school lunches in September that were funneled through the Electronic Benefit Transfer cards that are used to issue the food stamp benefits. 

Pandemic doubles food stamps image (2)

Was this the Best Way to Do it?

Note that Congress did not allow the states to expand the number of participants beyond the normal eligibility criteria for the program. The P-SNAP benefits of $581,085,040 spent since March were spent on those who would have normally qualified for the benefits.

Consequently, the households who benefited the most from the extra funding were those households with the higher incomes just under the eligibility limits. My next blog will show in greater detail how P-SNAP caused the welfare cliff to jump in magnitude.

In the meantime, if you have an opinion on whether this was a fair way to allocate extra funding for food stamps, be sure to let us know in the comments below.


Erik Randolph is Director of Research at the Georgia Center for Opportunity. This blog reflects his opinion and not necessarily that of the Georgia Center for Opportunity.

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.


How Can You Measure Welfare Program Success? Part 2

How Can You Measure Welfare Program Success? Part 2

How Can You Measure Welfare Program Success?

Part 2

By Erik Randolph

My last blog explained dependency metrics and how they measure the success of welfare programs. However, these metrics are not the complete answer.

By also following people after they leave the system, we can gain a fuller picture of success.

This technique is common for job training programs. In fact, it is a requirement for state and local agencies receiving federal funding per the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, where agencies routinely measure the status and income of persons up to a year after  exiting the job training program. 

Follow-the-person metrics can be used for welfare programs as well, as Kansas and Maine already  demonstrate. 


Background on Food Stamp Work Requirements

 When the U.S. economy was recovering from the Great Recession, the states of Kansas and Maine led the nation in reinstating the federal work requirement for “Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents” (ABAWDs).   

The news media generally criticized the governments of Kansas and Maine for reinstating the rule, claiming it was cruel to push ABAWDs off food assistance. Kansas and Maine responded with follow-the-person data. 

Shortly thereafter in 2015—while Barack Obama was still president—the federal Food and Nutrition Service urged all other states to follow the federal law by reinstating the ABAWD rule. However, most states were hesitant to do so, and they continued seeking waivers and exemptions from enforcing it.

Federal law has two work requirements for the food stamp program. There is the general work requirement for persons ages 19 through 59 with notable exceptions, such as being in school half-time, physically or mentally unfit for employment, or caring for a child under six years of age or an incapacitated person. Under the general work requirement, the recipient must register for work or otherwise have good cause if they are not working at least 30 hours per week or enrolled in a job-training or workfare program. 

The second work requirement is specific to ABAWDs. This rule applies to persons ages 18 through 49, unless they are already exempt from the general work requirement or if they are responsible for a child under 18 years of age, or pregnant. Non-exempt ABAWDs cannot receive benefits for more than three months in a 36-month period unless they work for an average of 20 hours per week on a monthly basis or they participate in an approved “employment and training” program. 

States may, and routinely do, waive the ABAWD rule in areas within their state with unemployment over 10 percent, and they have the discretion to exempt up to 15% of persons from the requirement. 

During the Great Recession, Congress suspended the ABAWD rule until September 20, 2010, but many states continued waiving the requirement well into 2017. 


Kansas and Maine Break New Ground 

Under the administration of Governor Sam Brownback, Kansas restored the ABAWD rule in October 2013. The Kansas Department for Children and Families, with the help of the state’s Department of Labor, followed the wages of individuals exiting the food stamp program. Departments of labor typically administer unemployment insurance programs that collect wage data. 

According to a report by the Foundation for Government Accountability, Kansas had 28,144 ABAWDs on food stamps in October 2013. One year later, in October 2014, there were 9,193. The following October, the number dropped to 7,601.

The drop in enrollment among this population may be alarming if one assumes these individuals were worse off, as many in the news media did. However, the follow-the-person data showed otherwise. On average, the annual wages of these individuals rose above the poverty line, from $6,703 in December 2013 to $13,304 in the fourth quarter of 2014. 


Maine had a similar experience.

No longer requesting an ABAWD waiver in 2014, the Maine Departments of Labor and Health & Human Services cooperated in following the wages of the 6,866 who did not comply with the reinstatement of the work requirement and exited the program. The Governor’s Office of Policy and Management under the political leadership of Governor Paul LePage analyzed the wage data. Its report showed total wages for this group more than doubled from the third quarter of 2014 to the fourth quarter in 2015. On average, quarterly wages increased from $1,984 to $3,514, also raising the wages of many ABAWDs above the poverty level. 



What Follow-the-Person Metrics Could Mean for Georgia and Other States

Unfortunately, both Kansas and Maine abandoned the follow-the-person data collection—not for policy reasons related to the effectiveness of the metrics but because of changes in political leadership.

Nevertheless, the states demonstrated that follow-the-person metrics can be applied to welfare programs in addition to job training programs. There is no good reason why Georgia and other states could not also implement follow-the-person metrics for welfare programs by having their welfare agencies cooperate with their departments of labor.

Additionally, states are not limited to using department of labor wage data. They could also initiate surveys to collect more detailed data on the well-being of individuals after exiting a program. 

Do you think it would be good for Georgia to begin using dependency and follow-the-person metrics to measure the success of welfare programs? Let us know in the comments below.


Erik Randolph is Director of Research at the Georgia Center for Opportunity. This blog reflects his opinion and not necessarily that of the Georgia Center for Opportunity.


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.