We know that people do better in life when they experience the benefits of meaningful work and healthy relationships. But we also know that so many cultural forces are stacked against success in these two areas. One of the biggest is the American welfare system, which keeps people trapped in cycles of dependence while reducing incentives to climb the economic ladder or form stable relationships.
That’s why the Georgia Center for Opportunity has been on the vanguard of work-focused welfare reform that gives a hand-up to struggling people while preserving the social safety net for those who truly need it. The great news is that we’re seeing growing momentum—both at the state and national level—to make these reforms a reality.
Georgia lawmakers are poised to consider legislation in the General Assembly to take significant steps on welfare reform—what we call the “right to strive”—while nationally we are seeking waivers to expedite the reform package at the state level. In recent months, we’ve presented our welfare research to Georgia’s Rural Economic Development Committee, created by former Gov. Nathan Deal and the legislature to help rural Georgia communities become more competitive economically. The committee was already well aware of the damage caused by welfare cliffs in the lives of individuals and businesses, so they were very welcoming of our input. We’ve also met with policymakers in Washington, D.C., on our welfare reform proposals.
The changes can’t come soon enough. Although the Georgia economy is booming with a historic 3.6% unemployment rate, these trendlines obscure a hidden workforce crisis: Millions of Americans aren’t counted in the official unemployment rate because they’ve simply given up looking for work. A crucial step in the right direction for these non-working individuals is to create a welfare system that helps—rather than hinders—their connection to meaningful work.
The most important changes in our proposal are to reduce welfare “cliffs,” a scenario where benefit drop-offs unfairly punish workers for earning more and moving up the economic ladder. Secondly, our proposals eliminate the marriage penalty that encourages single parenthood.
A big step to accomplish this is by consolidating the major 15 welfare programs hosted by federal, state, and local agencies into five coordinated programs, headed by a sole lead agency. In the end, our reforms stabilize the safety net for those who truly need it, adopt a “work first” approach for those who are able, and create incentives to form marriages and households.
We’re optimistic that we will soon see work- and family-focused “right-to-strive” reforms in Georgia. Interested in learning more? Don’t miss our three-part series of reports on welfare reform: Part 1, part 2, and part 3.