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.


Improve Your Life with a Growth Mindset

Improve Your Life with a Growth Mindset

Improve Your Life with a Growth Mindset

adults learning

Learning keeps you growing

Most people agree that learning is important. I’m just not sure we understand how important it really is. I can still remember as a child believing that I needed to know everything or people wouldn’t think I was smart and capable. I hear kids today (and even adults) saying, “You don’t have to tell me. I know that.” Saying this often enough can make it an automatic response to receiving new information.

There seems to be an inherent desire–starting at a very young age–to already have the knowledge we need to understand the world. It can be even more difficult for children to see the value of learning when our educational system (and usually our parents) place the focus on grades as the most important thing they have to achieve. And learning isn’t only important for kids. While it may start when we’re young, it surely doesn’t end there. If we are wise, we will be learning until the end of our lives.

Learning new information will help us grow personally in a way that allows us to better handle life’s challenges we face every day. As we continue learning into adulthood, it can actually improve our memory and help us relate to new information positively. It may even reduce our chances of developing Alzheimer’s or dementia.

Learning can also help us adapt to new situations with less stress and anxiety. If you struggle to see change as good and prefer that things stay the same, this is a skill that will make your daily life more pleasant. It can also increase your value in the workplace because you’ll be able to easily “roll with the punches”. Learning even changes the way you think about the hard stuff. In short, it helps you embrace a growth mindset.

What is a growth mindset? This simply means you believe your abilities can be improved through dedication and hard work, and that your talents can be developed. It’s about more than just taking in feedback, learning from your experience, and coming up with strategies for improving. It’s also about knowing deep down in your gut that even when you fail at something, you will eventually succeed. In fact, it’s the knowledge that failing will only make you more likely to succeed the next time or the time after that! Every time you fail, your success muscle gets stronger.

Embracing this growth mindset will allow you to bounce back quickly from disappointment because you understand that every failure is an opportunity to learn something new and therefore a stepping stone toward your success. This helps us to be more resilient, and resiliency allows us to cope better with the hard things in life.



A BETTER life begins with BETTER WORK.

Learning equals confidence

In short, learning will make you more confident in yourself and in your future. Your perspective will change so you begin to see the journey of life differently. I encourage you to take the first step if you haven’t already. Find something new you want to learn today, and do it!

BETTER WORK communities have mentors who are available to walk alongside you during your journey. Visit to find out more.


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.


BETTER WORK adds direct-to-business job applications

BETTER WORK adds direct-to-business job applications

BETTER WORK adds direct-to-business job applications

Working to more quickly connect our communities to work.

In efforts to better address the needs of the unemployed in our communities, we have taken an evolving learning approach to how we support those in need. Not only are we looking to learn from those in need, but we also listen to the business and service providers that are vital to the success of programs like BETTER WORK (formerly Hiring Well, Doing Good). This has led to the rebranding of the project (you can learn more about that here) but has also helped us as we create tools and align resources.

We are excited because this week we launched our job application resource in the Gwinnett County and Columbus areas that we serve. Through this resource, we are able to help remove many of the obstacles that people may face to finding employment and connect them directly to businesses hiring people in their situation.


BETTER WORK is helping people connect more quickly and directly into jobs and providing additional resources to help those who are motivated prepare for better work opportunities in the future. When everyone is able to find the right resources, attain safe housing, and find gainful employment, we will experience less poverty, less crime, and greater prosperity across our communities.”

Kristin Barker

Through the job application resource, users will be able to quickly answer a few questions and apply for multiple jobs in their area. Local businesses also benefit because they have helped us craft the questions on the application itself. This means they know that each applicant meets their specific criteria to start working.

A great example is someone coming out of the prison system. Oftentimes returning citizens looking for work may only be able to work nights and weekends due to family and child needs. With our new resource, we can connect these individuals directly to an employer willing to hire returning citizens that offer nights and weekend work. Thus we alleviate the barriers workers face trying to find the right work. And we support our local economies through local businesses.

Work is a vital step in helping people feel a sense of purpose, belonging, and responsibility to themselves, their family, and their communities. It is why we constantly say that work is “more than a job”. This new tool will help remove another barrier faced by workers and will drive more people to independent and flourishing lives.

Learn More About Our

Through BETTER WORK we are able to connect local resources with local needs and restore dignity through work.

Q&A with Hire Dynamics on challenges of hiring in 2021

Q&A with Hire Dynamics on challenges of hiring in 2021

Q&A with Hire Dynamics on challenges of hiring in 2021


April’s nonfarm payroll numbers came in at 266,000, well below the 1 million people forecasters estimated would be hired that month. 

The low number wasn’t because there were a lack of jobs. There were 8.1 million open positions at the end of March. And it wasn’t due to a lack of people who need work. In April, there were 18.2 million people who received some form of federal unemployment assistance.

Hire Dynamics, a staffing and professional recruitment business that operates in the Atlanta area in addition to other locations across the U.S., has experienced the shortage of workers first hand. The following Q&A is an interview with Chuck Fallaw, regional manager for Hire Dynamics.

Q: Please explain what your business does / your focus

Hire Dynamics is a regional staffing agency headquartered in Atlanta GA. We focus on temp-to-hire staffing in the manufacturing, logistics/e-commerce, warehouse distribution, administrative, and call center verticals.

Q: What was hiring like prior to the pandemic?

Prior to the pandemic, we faced challenges with finding talent due to incredibly low unemployment. For example, in Nashville, TN where we had a 1.2% unemployment rate. Their pay rates were naturally rising due to the competition for talent. However, it was still much easier to fill positions than it has been over the last year and a half.

Q: How about during the pandemic?

Hiring during the pandemic was a unique challenge. Many of our clients are considered essential, so their need for talent never slowed down. Outside of true shutdowns, we were still able to fill some roles. That changed quite a bit in the last six months.



What we do matters.

  • Best of Staffing for Client & Talent Satisfaction by ClearlyRated – 11 years in a row:
  • Top 1% of more than 20,000 staffing companies
  • Continuously recognized as a Best Place to Work company throughout the Southeast
  • Superior client loyalty: client ratings 8 times higher and talent ratings 2.5 times higher than the industry average
  • Committed to and engaged with the communities we serve

Q: Right now, are you having trouble filling positions, and if so which ones?

Yes. All of them. Many of the manufacturers we work with are running around 50% of the workforce they typically employ. Obviously, this is tough on productivity, but it also leads to environments that are not as safe, elevated worker’s comp, and general morale issues among the employees. Light industrial staffing (at least in my region) has been the hardest hit. As I mentioned before, prior to the pandemic the economy was roaring, and talent was in demand. When the pandemic hit, those needs didn’t really go away, but the talent did.


Q: In what ways are you trying to recruit / attract employees in this environment?

Grassroots recruiting is very important right now. Getting in front of the talent and helping them get back into the workforce is a big part of what we are doing. We are doing drive-through job fairs, virtual job fairs, and massive recruiting events. In addition, we are coaching our clients on reducing barriers to entry, pay adjustments, and other ways to incentivize employees to come back.





In the first paper of our three-part series presenting a vision for systemic welfare reform in Georgia, we explore the need for a welfare system that starts with the assumption that natural support systems, including individual work and a reliance on family and community assistance, should be the primary sources of help when individuals face financial need. This report demonstrates how the current system does not meet these assumptions and points to the need for reform.


In the second paper of our three-part series presenting a vision for systemic welfare reform in Georgia, we explore the new system as we imagine it could be, give guiding principles, provide a general framework for how the reformed system can function, and establish preliminary steps needed to implement the vision.


In the third and final paper of our three-part series presenting a vision for systemic welfare reform in Georgia, we propose the creation of new, consolidated program modules (including their structure, design, and expected outcomes) to replace current, disjointed programs. We go on to present a structure Georgia’s governor and executive agencies could adopt to effectively and in relatively short order implement a reformed system.


Medical assistance programs have long needed reforms to address high prices and lack of access. Despite the fact that federal policy tends to dominate medical assistance programs, states do have some flexibility to enact reforms. This study explores how states – and particularly Georgia – have flexibility and can experiment with Medicaid, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to improve access, lower costs, and streamline the system to better serve those in need of assistance.


Georgia has suffered from higher unemployment rates and lower high school graduation rates than the national average for many years. This report takes a look at the trends driving those problems and the potential solutions, including apprenticeships, that could lead to greater economic mobility for young adults.

Resilience and Equity | SAPORTA REPORT

Resilience and Equity | SAPORTA REPORT

In The News

Resilience and Equity | SAPORTA REPORT

The challenges of the last year have impacted all of us. From social injustices to racial inequality and COVID, our communities are suffering. We have also seen great acts of heroism with our front-line workers who have continued to serve our communities. A common thread that has emerged is the power of resilience. At Families First, we believe that resilience is the foundation of building strong communities…

Through this approach, baseline assessments of the families are created to determine each member’s unique needs, care plan, check-in timelines, and aftercare plan to measure improvement. Working with partners like the Westside Future Fund, Georgia Center for OpportunityGwinnett Chamber of CommerceImpact46Goodwill of North GeorgiaRaising Expectations and others, Families First is helping our families create a personalized approach to move from surviving to thriving.