Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Welfare Officials Now Face Hard Cases; Ten Years after Landmark Reform, Georgia's Recipients Have Dropped Dramatically

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Welfare Officials Now Face Hard Cases; Ten Years after Landmark Reform, Georgia's Recipients Have Dropped Dramatically

Article excerpt

Byline: BRANDON LARRABEE

ATLANTA - Tameka Little used to be one of those stereotypical welfare cases.

At 18, she signed up for the re-named, revamped welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Her work experience was made mostly of short-lived jobs at fast-food restaurants or the like.

"A lot of jobs that I had, I quit," said Little, now 27. "I just gave up real fast."

After a while on TANF, she began to lose some of her motivation to find work.

"I felt like I didn't have to obtain a job or whatever because I had the system to depend on, to fall back on," she said.

Then, in 2001, Little got involved in the Georgia GoodWorks! program sponsored by the state Department of Labor. The program gave her job training and computer skills, the things she would need to find a good job.

Spurred by a desire to better support her three children, the lessons stuck. Little says she has a different outlook now, a different view of life and herself.

"I learned how to drive, and I lost weight," Little said. "It just made me a better person."

Ten years after landmark welfare reform was launched in 1996, Little is one of the success stories. But officials involved in trying to help welfare recipients find jobs say they're not resting on their accomplishments. The focus is merely changing to find jobs for the more difficult cases left behind.

For Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond, talking about welfare reform brings up decade-old memories of when he was asked by Gov. Zell Miller to lead the initiative in Georgia.

To some, a black Democrat was a surprising choice to head the Division of Family and Children Services.

"That raised a whole lot of eyebrows," Thurmond said.

While those on the left side of the political spectrum had always been wary that welfare reform was simply a code for "find ways to kick people off public assistance," some on the right were concerned Georgia would go too easy on recipients.

But Miller, Thurmond said, decided to go down the middle.

"To his credit, what we agreed on was we would implement welfare reform without the meanness. ... The goal was to get people jobs."

It was also, to Thurmond, a mission with personal echoes. His family had once been on public assistance, but only as a temporary measure to get through hard times.

He was convinced that, if given an opportunity to raise their status in life, many welfare recipients would take advantage of it.

"Poor people are poor, but that doesn't mean they can't add or subtract," he said.

In some ways, the program was merely shifting its focus. Welfare was no longer a handout, but temporary aid for those who needed it.

In Georgia, the number of cases fell rapidly, from nearly 370,000 at the beginning of 1996 to about 135,000 in 2000. …

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