The Best Administrative Structure for Welfare

The Best Administrative Structure for Welfare

The Best Administrative Structure for Welfare

By Erik Randolph

When someone needs financial help or workforce training from the government, where do they go?

If we just allowed people to navigate federal programs on their own, the average person would be completely overwhelmed.


mother and daughter in poverty
According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, there are more than 80 federal assistance programs for low-income persons and 43 federal employment and job-training programs at the federal level, with little overlap. Just listing the programs would exceed the word limit for a typical blog. 

Fortunately, states have some control over the process for some of the larger programs, like food stamps and Medicaid, that serve millions of Americans.

Georgia’s Gateway Strategy

Compared to many states, Georgia is ahead. The state government has spent years and $262 million to streamline its eligibility systems of means-tested programs into an integrated system known as the Georgia Gateway.

Here there is just one “door” to enter to qualify for some of the big federal means-tested programs entrusted to the states to administer.

The awarding-winning Gateway allows individuals to apply for ten programs across four state agencies, including  food stamps; food packages from the Women, Infants, and Children Program; Medicaid; subsidized childcare; and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

The Department of Human Services runs the eligibility system at an annual operating cost of about $62 million, but the department does not administer all the programs themselves. For example, the Department of Community Health administers the Medicaid program, and the Department of Early Care and Learning administers the subsidized childcare program. 

Integrated eligibility systems are far more convenient for the customers, requiring them to enter only one door, instead of up to five separate doors in the case of Georgia. It also streamlines the application process for the customer. 

On the administrative side, all the hard work is done behind the scenes. The automated systems can share information between programs. Moreover, the technology sets up the state to accomplish future streamlining, consolidation, and reform.

Despite all these advantages of the Gateway, there is still room for improvement. Take Utah’s system, for example. 

Utah’s Integrated System

Although Georgia is ahead of many states, Utah may be the furthest ahead. 

As explained in a recent American Enterprise Institute report, Utah streamlined 23 workforce programs across six state agencies into a Department of Workforce Services.

In addition to helping customers with employment, Utah treats basic welfare programs as support services. These include food stamps, subsidized childcare, financial assistance, and medical programs. Customers also can file claims for unemployment insurance and apply for disability services

The Utah system is clean and easy for the customer. Its “no wrong door” policy allows easy access to help in finding employment and receiving support services. It also sends a clear message that Utah prioritizes work as a solution.

Behind the scenes, Utah works with various federal agencies to make the system work. It is not an easy task. It requires creative solutions and continual effort on part of the state to take on the many hassles that come with dealing with the federal government, including the burdensome task of securing “waiver” approvals to federal law from the federal agencies.

However, the goal is worthwhile. It creates an easier experience for the customers,  at  overall less administrative cost.

Much More Work Needs to Be Done

Utah is showing the way, but much more work needs to be done. 

There are still welfare benefits that the federal government does not allow states to administer. These program benefits are additional doors that people must enter, requiring additional effort to apply for those benefits and hoops to jump through to get assistance. 

In other words, while Georgia has integrated eligibility systems, and Utah has gone even further with its integration, there are federal government programs outside the control of the states. These include the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Supplemental Security Income, and public housing.

Furthermore, as we have written about, the rules themselves still need fixing to eliminate welfare cliffs and marriage penalties. 

Nevertheless, progress is being made, and the work continues on. 

Do you have experience with the Georgia Gateway and other assistance programs?  Or perhaps experience in another state? Share your experiences in the comments below.

Erik Randolph is Director of Research at the Georgia Center for Opportunity. This blog reflects his opinion and not necessarily that of the Georgia Center for Opportunity.

List of Programs per the Government Accountability Office, Reports GAO-15-516 and GAO-19-200.

  • 21st Century Community Learning Centers
  • Additional Child Tax Credit
  • Adoption Assistance
  • Adult Education Grants to States (Adult Education and Family Literacy Act)
  • Affordable Care Act Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program
  • American Indian Vocational Rehabilitation Services
  • Career and Technical Education – Basic Grants to States
  • Chafee Foster Care Independence Program
  • Child and Adult Care Food Program (lower-income components)
  • Child Care and Development Fund
  • Child Support Enforcement
  • Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grants
  • Commodity Supplemental Food Program
  • Community Based Job Training Grants
  • Community Development Block Grants
  • Community Service Employment for Older Americans
  • Community Services Block Grant
  • Compensated Work Therapy
  • Consolidated Health Centers
  • Disabled Veterans’ Outreach Program
  • Earned Income Tax Credit
  • Education for the Disadvantaged- Grants to Local Educational Agencies (Title I, Part A)
  • Emergency Food and Shelter Program
  • Environmental Workforce Development and Job Training Cooperative Agreements (Brownfield Job Training Cooperative Agreements in 2011report)
  • Exclusion of Cash Public Assistance Benefits
  • Family Planning
  • Federal Pell Grants
  • Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants
  • Federal TRIO Programs
  • Federal Work-Study
  • Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations
  • Foster Care
  • Foster Grandparent Program
  • Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program
  • Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs
  • Grants to States for Workplace and Community Transition Training for Incarcerated Individuals
  • H-1B Job Training Grants
  • Head Start
  • Higher Education: Aid for Institutional Development programs and Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions programs
  • HOME Investment Partnerships Program
  • Homeless Veterans’ Reintegration Program (Homeless Veterans’ Reintegration Project in 2011 report)
  • Homeless Assistance Grants
  • Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS
  • Improving Teacher Quality State Grants
  • Indian and Native American Program (Native American Employment and Training in 2011 report)
  • Indian Education – Bureau of Indian Education

  • Indian Education—Formula Grants to Local Educational Agencies
  • Indian Health Service
  • Indian Housing Block Grant
  • Indian Human Services (Division of Human Services)
  • Job Corps
  • Job Placement and Training Program (Indian Employment Assistance in 2011 report)
  • Job Training, Employment Skills Training, Apprenticeships, and Internships
  • Legal Services Corporation
  • Local Veterans’ Employment Representative Program
  • Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program
  • Low-Income Housing Tax Credit
  • Maternal and Child Health Block Grant
  • Mathematics and Science Partnerships
  • d settings.
  • Medicaid
  • Medical Care for Low- Income Veterans Without Service-Connected Disability
  • Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Program
  • National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program
  • National Farmworker Jobs Program
  • National School Lunch Program (free and reduced- price components)
  • Native American Career and Technical Education Program (Career and Technical Education – Indian Set-Aside in 2011 report)
  • Native Employment Works (Tribal Work Grants in 2011)
  • Native Hawaiian Career and Technical Education Program
  • Nutrition Assistance Program for Puerto Rico
  • Nutrition Service for the Elderly
  • Older Americans Act Grants for Supportive Services and Senior Centers
  • Older Americans Act: National Family Caregiver Support Program
  • Projects with Industry
  • Public Housing
  • Reentry Employment Opportunities (Reintegration of Ex-Offenders in 2011 report)
  • Refugee and Entrant Assistance – Discretionary Grants (Refugee and Entrant Assistance – Targeted Assistance Discretionary Program from 2011 is now part of this program)
  • Refugee and Entrant Assistance – Targeted Assistance Grants
  • Refugee and Entrant Assistance – Voluntary Agencies Matching Grant Program
  • Refugee and Entrant Assistance State/Replacement Designee Administered Programs ((Refugee and Entrant Assistance – Social Services Program from 2011 is now part of this program)
  • Registered Apprenticeship
  • Rental Housing Bonds Interest Exclusion
  • Rural Education Achievement Program
  • Rural Rental Assistance Payments
  • Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program
  • School Breakfast Program (free and reduced-price components)
  •  Second Chance Act Technology-Based Career Training Program for Incarcerated Adults and Juveniles (Second Chance Act Reentry Initiative in 2011 report)
  • Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers
  • Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance
  • Senior Community Service Employment Program
  • Social Services and Targeted Assistance for Refugees
  • Social Services Block Grants
  • Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC)
  • State Children’s Health Insurance Program
  • State Supported Employment Services Program
  • State Vocational Rehabilitation Services Program (Rehabilitation Services – Vocational Rehabilitation Grants to States in 2011 report)
  • Summer Food Service Program
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
  • Supplemental Security Income
  • Supportive Housing for Persons with Disabilities
  • Supportive Housing for the Elderly
  • Tech Prep Education State Grants
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families
  • The Emergency Food Assistance Program
  • Title I Migrant Education Program
  • Trade Adjustment Assistance for Workers
  • Transition Assistance Program
  • Transitional Cash and Medical Services to Refugees
  • Tribal Technical Colleges (United Tribes Technical College in 2011 report)
  • Tribally Controlled Postsecondary Career and Technical Institutions
  • Veterans Pension and Survivors Pension
  • Veterans’ Workforce Investment Program
  • Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (Vocational Rehabilitation for Disabled Veterans in 2011 report)
  • Voluntary Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit- Low-Income Subsidy
  • Wagner-Peyser Act Employment Service (Employment Service/Wagner-Peyser Funded Activities in 2011 report)
  • Water and Waste Disposal Systems for Rural Communities
  • Weatherization Assistance
  • Work Opportunity Tax Credit
  • Workforce Investment Act Adult Activitiesa
  • Workforce Investment Act Youth Activitiesb
  • WIOA National Dislocated Worker Grants (WIA National Emergency Grants in 2011)
  • WIOA Youth Program (WIA Youth Activities in 2011 report)
  • Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations
  • Youth Partnership Programs (Conservation Activities by Youth Service Organizations in 2011 report)
  • YouthBuild


Based on the most recent 2015 data, this report provides an in-depth look at the welfare cliffs across the state of Georgia. A computer model was created to demonstrate how welfare programs, alone or in combination with other programs, create multiple welfare cliffs for recipients that punish work. In addition to covering a dozen programs – more than any previous model – the tool used to produce the following report allows users to see how the welfare cliff affects individuals and families with very specific characteristics, including the age and sex of the parent, number of children, age of children, income, and other variables. Welfare reform conversations often lack a complete understanding of just how means-tested programs actually inflict harm on some of the neediest within our state’s communities.

Debt as a Barrier to Reentry: Jonathan O’Neill’s Story

Prison, Barbed Wire

Jonathan O’Neill, a humble and soft-spoken man, is 46 years old and the father of fourteen children. He has been incarcerated since 2012 and currently resides at a transitional center where he works and takes various classes to prepare for his release that is set for Spring 2016. He is currently responsible for paying child support for seven of his children, which mostly consists of reimbursing the state for public assistance that was given to the children’s mothers. His other seven children are either grown or fully supported by their mothers.

When the time comes for Jonathan to be released, he will have as much as $45,000 in back child support, a suspended driver’s license, and the stigma of a criminal record. His story demonstrates how child support debt and its associated consequences can create significant barriers for people reentering society from prison.

The Debt Begins

Jonathan was just 19 years old when had his first run-in with the law. A joyride with a friend in a stolen car not only cost him his freedom, but also led his then girlfriend to seek Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to take care of their child. Like many incarcerated persons, Jonathan found out the hard way that he owed child support to the state as reimbursement for public assistance, and that his time behind bars did not delay responsibility to pay the state back. The 18-month prison sentence he received resulted in thousands of dollars in arrears accruing by the time he was released.

This debt made him angry and he refused to pay the state back for the public assistance given to his girlfriend.

Jonathan had his next two children with another woman. Though they lived together, this girlfriend also began receiving TANF apart from him knowing it. His child support arrears grew to $8,000 during this time because he was not paying the state for the public assistance it was providing for his children. Additionally, none of the money he spent to take care of his children while they lived together counted toward his growing child support debt because it was considered unofficial support since payments were not being made to the state as a reimbursement for public assistance. This led to a fall-out with his girlfriend and made him grow even more angry and rebellious toward the child support system over the next few years.

Jonathan explains, “I was mad at the mothers for doing this, so I neglected paying. I would take care of the children in my home, but I didn’t want to pay the state back. I had a rebellious spirit and felt like I was the father and I’m doing it how I want to.”

By the age of 27, Jonathan had five children from two mothers and over $14,000 in child support arrears. Having difficulty finding a job with his felony conviction, he began selling drugs to earn money. He was eventually caught with cocaine in 1999 and sentenced to 10 years on probation. Nine years later in 2008, he violated his conditions of probation by testing positive for marijuana, and he was sent to a Probation Detention Center (PDC) for 90 days.

A Turning Point

During his time in the PDC, Jonathan reflected upon the words a judge spoke to him in 2005: “You have so much in arrears, you will die owing the state money.” These words haunted him, and he wanted to make sure this did not prove true.

Upon release from the PDC in 2008, Jonathan became involved with a church that was located directly across the street from the PDC. It was through his involvement there that he experienced a spiritual transformation and became determined to earn an honest living. However, despite his earnest desire to find legitimate work, he struggled to find a job for eight months.

“I waited eight months and still I had no job. I got letters from the state threatening to lock me up for a whole year for non-payment of child support. I was tempted to sell drugs again. However, I chose to depend on God and He came through. I started painting at the church for no money. One day, God brought a man from the church who gave me a job at Food Lion because he was leaving.”

Jonathan gained skills as a meat cutter and worked consistently from 2009-2012 at stores such as Food Lion, Food Depot, and Piggly Wiggly, even earning employee of the quarter at his first store. During this period, he paid the full amount of his child support order each month plus a percentage of his arrears, amounting to $566 per month. He was determined to pay off his debt and make sure that he would not die owing money to the state

“I would have paid all of this debt at one time if I could,” says Jonathan, but at this point he was nowhere close to being able to do this. Instead, he paid what he could little-by-little. As a result, his hard work and determination enabled him to reduce his arrears by thousands of dollars.

Jonathan was heading down the right track.

Another Setback

In the summer of 2012, Jonathan and his fiancé were scraping by to pay the bills. Desperate for a way to earn extra cash, he discovered that he was able to win quick cash through gambling.

“I got addicted to playing gambling machines for cash money. I started losing money and got behind on rent. I didn’t want to face my children after not being able to pay, and I thought I could gamble to get the money.”

The day came when Jonathan gambled away money that he needed to pay his family’s rent. Upon losing, he panicked and snatched the money from a manager at the gambling center. For his rash actions, he was charged with robbery by snatching and was sentenced to prison for the second time.

“I’ve been in prison for two years and three months now. The state just sent me two letters for two different cases and I owe a total of $45,308 in arrears ($18,209 non-TANF arrears and $27,099 TANF arrears). It’s discouraging. I’m in prison – what do they expect me to do?”

Georgia is one of three states that does not allow inmates to earn money while working in prison, leaving him no way to pay his debt while incarcerated. However, now that he is at a transitional center, Jonathan has the ability to work, earn money, and have some earnings withheld to pay child support.

He is currently working at Arko Veal Meat Co. earning $8.50 per hour and working 26 hours per week. This work enables him to have $389 withheld from his paycheck every month to go toward paying child support.

Barriers to Reentry

While Jonathan’s time in the transitional center is helping to prepare him for reentry, he will face new challenges upon release. His home is far from the transitional center where he currently resides, which means that he will lose his present job and have to look for another one. He tried to transfer to a transitional center closer to home in order to find a job that he could keep upon release, but he was denied that opportunity. Still, he is hopeful that he will be able to get his old job back at Food Depot when the time comes to be released.

If this opportunity does not work out, his plan is to try to get a job at a different grocery store called Harvey’s. The manager at this store has hired individuals with convictions before, which gives him hope that he can work there, too. He would earn around $10 an hour as a meat cutter.

Even once Jonathan is able to secure a job, he still faces the challenge of commuting to work daily due to his suspended driver’s license. His license will only be reinstated by paying a sum that is twice the amount of his current child support order of $566, in addition to paying the normal monthly order.

“When the child support agent firmly stated that the amount I pay to get my license reinstated does not include what is coming out of my check, I hung my head. I thought, ‘Man, I can’t do this.’”

This sum of $1,698 is simply too much for him to pay while trying to pay rent, bills, and other living expenses.

Jonathan tried to arrange an agreement to make a partial payment in order to get his license back at an earlier point in time: “I told the agent, ‘Ma’am, I really need a license. Can I make a partial payment?’ She said no and told me that the judge ordered me to pay the full amount. She then said that we could get it modified, but that it would cost $300 just to go before the judge. I told her I can’t come up with it.”

He estimates that it will take him a year of full-time work at the grocery store before he will be able to pay to have his driver’s license reinstated. For now, he plans to get to work by having his fiancé, who works a full-time job as a night-shift nurse assistant, or his adult son drive him there.

Jonathan has a sincere desire to do whatever it takes to support his kids, which he demonstrated during the three years leading up to his incarceration. He simply lacks the money needed to have his license reinstated because it must go toward meeting his family’s basic living expenses.

“Having a driver’s license would not only be my way to work, but it would also help out with my duties as a husband and father around our home. My son and daughter are starting Kindergarten and Pre-K and my fiancé works from 11 pm to 8 am, so I will have to take them to school before I go to work.

For now, he is determined to make the best use of his time in the transitional center as he prepares for his reentry. He expresses an air of freedom and hope that did not exist earlier in his life, despite being encumbered by debt. He knows what it looks like to fully embrace his roles as a responsible father and citizen, and he plans to continue down this path once he is released.