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Christmas can be a sad season

POSTED: December 23, 2013 5:54 p.m.

I try to remain cheerful and optimistic during the holiday season, but it isn’t easy when you’re reminded how tough things are for so many Georgians.


I heard from a newspaper colleague in the southern part of the state last week who’s trying to raise five kids as a single mother and finally decided to request assistance through the food stamp program.


“Three weeks ago, I swallowed my pride and applied for food stamps,” she recounted. “This was VERY hard for me to do, especially because of my position in the community.”


The food stamp program is federally funded but locally administered by the state’s Division of Family and Children Services.  My colleague attempted to sign up for the program online, but ran into frustrating glitches with the computer system and was unable to get through on the agency’s telephone line.


“Finally, about a week later, I went to the local office (which is only open three days a week due to budget cuts) and explained the problem,” she said. “The receptionist had me write the correct information down and assured she would send it on.”


But she was still unable to contact anyone by telephone to set up an interview, so she made yet another visit to the local DFACS office and was finally told by an employee, “I’m sorry, ma’am, there is nothing we can do.”


She was luckier than many people. Being in the newspaper business, she at least knew the name of her local legislator and was able to contact him. Sen. Tyler Harper (R-Ocilla) is now trying to help her get the situation straightened out.


Even if she is able to sign up for food stamps, the assistance will be meager and may not last very long.


On Oct. 31, food stamp benefits were cut by 5 percent, reducing the average benefit from $1.50 per person per meal to $1.40. Those benefits could be cut even more as the two parties fight it out in Congress, where Republicans want to make further reductions and Democrats want to restore food stamp benefits.


For low-income families that rely on food stamps, it won’t be a very merry season.


The same goes for nearly 43,000 laid-off workers who are classified as long-term unemployed and are receiving emergency federal jobless benefits. On Dec. 28, three days after Christmas, these federal benefits will terminate because the two parties in Congress haven’t been able to agree on extending them.


There was a time when Georgia paid up to 26 weeks of benefits to jobless workers, but legislators cut that back to a maximum of 20 weeks and the payments could be as short as 14 weeks depending upon the unemployment rate. We are one of the stingiest states in the nation when it comes to helping the unemployed.


There are still many people, especially older workers, who are struggling to find gainful employment as the state progresses through the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. The federal jobless benefits, a little more than $300 a week, helped some people keep body and soul together, but those payments will soon cease.


I called the Georgia Labor Department and asked if there was any assistance the state might be able to provide to these unemployed workers when the federal benefits run out.


“There is no program in the state Department of Labor to help them,” an agency spokesman said.


It’s a bleak picture and it’s getting bleaker.


The Georgia Budget & Policy Institute has released this assessment of the economic situation in our state:


“Poverty in Georgia worsened since the beginning of the recovery. Georgia is now the sixth-poorest state in the nation, with its current poverty rate the highest it has been since 1982. More than 19 percent of Georgians, or 1.8 million adults and children, lived in poverty in 2012, compared to about 18 percent in 2010. Nearly 160,000 more people lived in poverty in Georgia in 2012 than in 2010.”


As we’ve noted in this space before, our state and local governments are happy to spend tax dollars to build stadiums for the billionaires who own professional sports franchises.


As for helping our poorest citizens? Sorry, you’re on your own. That’s the depressing message for this holiday season.


Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com that reports on state government and politics. He can be reached at tcrawford@gareport.com.

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