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The Middle-Class Squeeze 

Georgia lawmakers get set to turn the screws

Wages are stagnant. Bread-and-butter expenses, from tuition to transportation, are outpacing inflation. Housing costs have skyrocketed. And health insurance is so expensive that many Georgians see their finances ruined for life because of one illness.

Years ago, the safety net under the poor began to tatter. Now, the middle class -- families earning $35,000 to $75,000 a year -- is falling through the gaps. At big bankers' behest, Congress made it more difficult in 2005 for hard-hit families to seek bankruptcy protection. Not surprisingly, foreclosures -- which are far easier here than in other states -- have zoomed upward. And the state is making it increasingly difficult for children in hard-hit families to receive Medicaid coverage.

In Washington, Congress' new leaders plan to deal modestly with a handful of everyday family problems. The House of Representatives, for example, approved a minimum-wage increase and should vote for a cut for college-loan interest rates any day now.

In Atlanta, however, help isn't on the way. Georgia's elected leaders began the state legislative session with few hints that they plan to ease the middle-class burden. Indeed, they seem more likely to make things harder.

This week, CL takes a look at five big issues -- transportation, tuition, health insurance, child care and taxes -- and what your lawmakers aren't doing to deal with them.



Tuition

We don't need (or rather, can't afford) no education

click to enlarge HOPELESS: Ivan Ramirez fell into debt and had to drop out of Georgia State University. - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • HOPELESS: Ivan Ramirez fell into debt and had to drop out of Georgia State University.

Ivan Ramirez is the 25-year-old owner of a landscaping business in Lawrenceville. When he lost his HOPE scholarship, his plan to finish college in four years dissolved.

During my senior year, my options were between University of Georgia and Georgia State. I got accepted to UGA, but I was in love. That was my first mistake. I ended up going to Georgia State. I'm still currently trying to finish. First, I was pre-med. I wanted to be a doctor for the money, you know how it is. Then after two-and-a-half years, I decided to do business. I'm kind of more like a businessman.

I got a HOPE scholarship because I had a 3.4 GPA in high school. I used it for the first two-and-a-half years no problem. But then I lost it. I didn't take enough hours one semester because I started to work more at Pike Nursery. I was working 40 hours, sometimes a little bit more. See, I got myself into a little bit of credit-card debt and I had to pay that off. Six thousand dollars in debt is a lot to a college student. I partied a lot, took a trip to Cancun on that card. I got carried away.

At first I took a full load, but then I dropped out of some classes because I didn't want to fail. I was working so much I fell behind in a bunch of classes. It hurt me at the end of my junior year because I didn't have enough credit hours to continue getting HOPE. It wasn't because of my grades. I didn't have enough hours.

It really bothers me because one of my goals was to finish school right away. It's the thing I didn't get to accomplish in the time frame that I wanted to. When I lost the HOPE my parents couldn't pay for the last year.

Right now, I have my own landscaping company. So far it's good. The first year you got to buy a lot of stuff. Hopefully next year I can finish school because then I'll be able to pay for it. It's not worth trying to get HOPE again. I only have a year left. There's not enough time to go through the application process. So I'm saving money for it. Then I'll be able to sit back and enjoy the perks of being a business owner.

The issue: The cost of tuition in Georgia -- and across the nation -- has skyrocketed, while the number of grants available to college students has dwindled. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, two-thirds of all college students now leave school in debt.

Though Georgia offers HOPE scholarships to students with a B average or higher, it doesn't cover room and board, or any increase in mandatory fees over the course of a college career. On top of that, there's absolutely no need-based aid in the state. In a national study of college affordability released in September, Georgia received an "F."

Legislators also cut HOPE grants for workers seeking to upgrade their skills beyond two certificates, which means people losing jobs in an unstable market will have greater difficulty trying to advance their training.

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