He ain't heavy ... well, yes he is 

Gov't trims welfare rolls, but will the poor find good work?

On the surface, the numbers don't look bad.

About 51,500 Georgia families currently depend on welfare checks each month. Five years ago, that number was more than 132,000. At the rate welfare recipients are disappearing, it would seem that the prosperous past half-decade has had as great an impact on the poor as it has on the middle and upper classes.

State officials and researchers say former welfare families have found jobs and are riding the wave of our swelling economy. They say that the factory worker has benefited as greatly as the dot-commer. Never mind the possibility that the market may suffer a future crash. The climate right now suits the poor and wealthy alike.

But if you look at the numbers another way, the jobs available to the poor typically pay so badly that there seems to be little difference between working and collecting a check.

A study by the National Coalition for the Homeless reports that a sample of 5,000 welfare families in 15 states, including Georgia, "continue[s] to struggle despite, if not directly due to, welfare reform policies" and remains "relatively unaffected" by our strong economy.

Anita Beaty, who provided the national study with its Georgia figures, says she sees evidence of the study's findings in the faces of men, women and children who seek her help at the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless.

Beaty says no one keeps track of exactly why 81,100 families gave up welfare in the past five years. Have most found jobs? Probably. Do those jobs pay enough to keep them off welfare? Probably not.

"The major fiasco is that 15 percent of people who were in shelters nine or 10 years ago were working. Now it's up to 40 percent," says Beaty, head of the Metro Atlanta Task Force for Homelessness. "So what we're looking at is shelters being used by necessity and default as housing for minimum wage earners."

Donna Taffar, who runs a homeless shelter in Forest Park called Calvary Refuge, says her 18-family facility is always at capacity. Some residents stay as long as a year and a half. "A lot of the families that we have here are trying to work the system to their advantage, trying to get themselves back to stable," she says.

It's not easy and likely won't get any easier as their ranks swell.

On Dec. 31, 1,445 Georgia families who had been collecting welfare for four years exhausted their state-allotted time limit and were supposed to be cut off. Of those 1,445 families, 80 percent sought and met what is called "hardship criteria." Meeting the criteria buys those families three more months of welfare. Those families were the first of tens of thousands who are scheduled to lose their welfare checks by 2005.

Linda Johnson, statewide coordinator for the Department of Labor's GoodWorks initiative, will try this year to find work for about 1,800 welfare recipients who have been unemployed for up to eight years and will soon be cut off from welfare.

"There are jobs out there for them," Johnson says. "Of course, the challenge will get a little greater as the economy weakens and plant closings and things occur as they're occurring now."

Larry Nackerud, a UGA associate professor in the school of Social Work, has studied 200 welfare families statewide in anticipation of the day their checks are discontinued.

"As the first large concentrations of people are reaching their limits on benefits, now is the real time to study the impact of welfare on these people's lives," Nackerud says.

Up until now, people seem to have weaned themselves off welfare with relative ease, as evidenced by the decreasing number of recipients, according to Nackerud. But he admits his study, which was funded by the state agency that oversees welfare, was conducted "in a good economic time when the policy push was to have them move off assistance."

The majority of the folks interviewed for Nackerud's research were eager to work. So he seemed a bit curious about the number of families who got off welfare, only to sign up again. "We see people -- it's a slow trickle but it's growing -- who are coming back even though they have very, very few months left of eligibility," Nackerud says. "Why are those people coming back? That would be an interesting study."

Such a study might show that the faltering economy will be too weak to carry the burden the government is unloading.

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