Nicole’s story: How a raise meant losing food stamp benefits for this mom of four

Nicole’s story: How a raise meant losing food stamp benefits for this mom of four

correctional officer

Nicole’s story: How a raise meant losing food stamp benefits for this mom of four

Nicole had high hopes when she moved her family from a rural area in south Georgia to Henry County in the Atlanta metro. The cost of living went up, but the job opportunities were more plentiful and paid much better: She went from making $25,000 a year to over $35,000 as a corrections officer.

But that’s when Nicole got an unpleasant surprise. Her new salary level meant that her safety-net benefits from the government went entirely away—not reduced, but entirely eliminated. She ended up getting around a $10,000 raise but losing approximately $12,500 in benefits.

“I ended up getting kicked off social services because I made a couple dollars more than the max I could,” Nicole shared.

Nicole is 32 years-old and the single mother of four boys. “I’m the only income. I don’t get child support payments or anything else,” she said.

Losing her benefits—particularly food stamps—was a severe blow, especially during the pandemic. Although she has gotten help from local church-based food banks to help her make ends meet, her situation is still stressful.

To further bridge the gap, Nicole is working as much overtime as possible. But she would need to earn significantly more—to the tune of $25 an hour—in order to fully make up for the benefits she has lost. Even in an economy where wages are quickly rising for many workers, that raise level is a tough haul.


What needs to change?

Nicole encountered what we call the “benefit cliff,” where well-intentioned policies actually prevent people from getting off public services. They make just enough to lose their benefits, but not enough to make up for those lost benefits. The result is a system that keeps people trapped in poverty rather than one that propels them toward self-sufficiency and the dignity that comes with it.

While it is wonderful to see how the community has stepped up to help Nicole fill the gaps left from her losing access to food stamps, not everyone is so fortunate.

So, what’s the best pathway forward? Our goals should be to shore up the safety net for those who truly need it, eliminate these benefit cliffs, and create a system that encourages (rather than discourages) people from climbing the economic ladder. Along these lines, here are three possible ways forward:


  • The food stamp program could be fully redesigned to eliminate the benefit cliffs.


  • Separate pools of funds (from public, private, and charitable resources) could be set up as temporary stop-gap measures to get people like Nicole beyond the cliff.


  • Nicole could work with someone who understands the cliffs to help her strategize a career and pay progression to effectively jump over the cliff.


The Success Sequence provides an outline of how to reverse the cycle of poverty in our communities. GCO uses this as a framework for much of our work.

#DareToClimb media campaign

This is why the Georgia Center for Opportunity (GCO) recently launched the #DareToClimb media campaign. The campaign is designed to raise awareness and share stories of those trapped in government assistance programs that, while well-intentioned, are structured in a way that often does more harm than good. GCO believes it is important to share the stories of these courageous men and women who have overcome obstacles in their lives to achieve self-sufficiency.

To learn more, follow the #DareToClimb hashtag.

** The $35,000 income limit is based on Nicole’s interview with us. Although our calculations show it will be somewhat higher, the impact and stress she is experiencing will be the same.


Guaranteed Income Subsidizes Poverty And Trivializes Those In Need

Guaranteed Income Subsidizes Poverty And Trivializes Those In Need

Guaranteed Income Subsidizes Poverty And Trivializes Those In Need


We need to have a frank discussion about how we view our fellow man and what we want for ourselves, our families, and our neighbors.

At the forefront of this discussion are policies that seem to want to help people. Policies that are labeled “anti-poverty” or expand social services indeed have good intent. However, I suggest these policies often are pandering and dismissive of the value of the person we hope to help. 

For instance, Los Angeles recently set out to become the largest U.S. city to institute a guaranteed income for the poor. On its face, this sounds like a way to help those in need find help. But as we dive deeper we begin to see that we are subsidizing rather than alleviating poverty. It reeks of the idea that we would simply pay off the poor and want nothing substantive for them.

“I just don’t think anyone making the rules knows what we are going through.”


Understanding how poverty is perceived by those in it, so that we can better understand how to address it.


We must realize that these actions cause us to look at our neighbor as a purely numerical transaction— a phrase often used to push against the ideas of capitalism, but one resoundingly relevant when we discuss these guaranteed incomes. The idea is that a person who is homeless or without work deserves to only be given a small living wage to simply survive. 

And survive on what? The quality of housing affordable on such services is usually in dangerous areas or ill-suited for long-term living. The quality of food affordable often leads to obesity or unhealthy lifestyles. Yes, they survive but we have afforded them no dignity or purpose in life.

The bottom line is the utter lack of compassion or humanity in this response. The idea that we view fellow humans as so incomplete that we ask nothing of them. This mentality simply says, “You can give us nothing so we will expect nothing of you.”

As a society, we have sold this idea as moral or righteous, but we sell short the potential of the people we hope to serve. We have robbed them of being fulfilled and feeling successful.

I am in no way saying that people hold no value unless they have a job. But what I am saying is that everyone has something to contribute and a way to bring value to those around them. More importantly, we desire to contribute and find self-worth in doing so.


We at the Georgia Center for Opportunity refer to this as “human flourishing.” We seek to help ensure that everyone has access to it, no matter the circumstances of their birth. In doing so, we understand that flourishing will look different for each person. That is a beautiful thing.

Recently a famous YouTuber, Mark Rober, shared the story of his autistic son. Mark’s son will likely never hold a job or be able to do the same things 99% of people will but he still desires to contribute and bring value to those around him. So yes we will need to adapt our understanding of success and human flourishing, but I would challenge us to consider that merely existing is not flourishing. And expecting that you will not flourish shows a severe lack of compassion and empathy.

Compassion requires that we would want more for people. Not merely enough material possession to be appeased but to truly desire for human flourishing.

On the opposite end of flourishing is merely surviving with no hope or want for more. Hopelessness occurs when we expect nothing from someone.

This is why we must look at policies that do more than simply address a felt need. We must build systems that restore and promote dignity and purpose. They must not trivialize human value to a monetary transaction. Instead, they must instill hope, purpose, and an expectation of human flourishing.


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The Pandemic Doubles the Food Stamp Program Part 1

The Pandemic Doubles the Food Stamp Program Part 1

The Pandemic Doubles the Food Stamp Program

Part 1

By Erik Randolph

The monthly spending for food stamp benefits in Georgia nearly doubled since before the start of the pandemic. Surprisingly, only 45.3 percent of the increased spending is due to increased participation. The remaining 54.7 percent is due to enhanced benefits.

Congress Makes a New Food Stamp Rule

On March 18th, the U.S. Senate passed H.R. 6201 that the U.S. House of Representative passed just four days prior. President Donald J. Trump signed the bill that same day, making the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (P.L. 116-127) the second federal law to address the looming pandemic. 

The food stamp provisions in the law suspended work and work-training requirements and allowed states to request waivers to give recipients the maximum allotment for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the official name of the food stamp program. 

Along with all other states, Georgia requested and received a pandemic-SNAP waiver—P-SNAP for short. P-SNAP lasts as long as there is a declared health emergency by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, and the waivers are renewed on a monthly basis.

Here is what it means in practice: Currently, all households of the same size receive the exact same food stamp allotment. An eligible single mom with one child receives $374 a month in food stamp benefits, the same amount as every other eligible two-person household in Georgia, no matter what income the household earns. It does not matter if the single mom has no income or makes $22,400 annually, which is just below the gross income limit. She still receives $374 each month in benefits. 

Likewise, an eligible four-person household currently receives $680 each month no matter if the household has no income or $34,000 in income, which is also just below the gross income limit.

During normal times, DFCS calculates net income of the household by subtracting several deductions and allowances from a household’s gross income. Then, to determine the amount of the benefit, DFCS subtracts 30 percent of the calculated net income from the maximum allotment. 

Benefits and Costs 

The number of Georgia households participating in the food stamp program was 626,808 in February 2020. As of September, that total was 905,949 households—a 44.5 percent increase. The number of persons participating increased from 1,342,624 to 1,862,486 for a 38.7 percent increase. 

The regular issuance of food stamp benefits followed the increase in household participation. It increased from $163,247,601 to $236,170,166—a 44.7 percent increase. Although the average fluctuated as much as $10.58 on a month-to-month basis, the average household benefit was $260.44 in February compared to $260.69 in September, which are almost identical. 

However, P-SNAP enhanced the size of the payments to the participants. When combined with the regular issuance, the total benefits in September were $324,169,118 for a 98.6 percent increase, increasing the average household benefit to $357.82. Note that these numbers do not include $100,385,379 for free and reduced price school lunches in September that were funneled through the Electronic Benefit Transfer cards that are used to issue the food stamp benefits. 

Pandemic doubles food stamps image (2)

Was this the Best Way to Do it?

Note that Congress did not allow the states to expand the number of participants beyond the normal eligibility criteria for the program. The P-SNAP benefits of $581,085,040 spent since March were spent on those who would have normally qualified for the benefits.

Consequently, the households who benefited the most from the extra funding were those households with the higher incomes just under the eligibility limits. My next blog will show in greater detail how P-SNAP caused the welfare cliff to jump in magnitude.

In the meantime, if you have an opinion on whether this was a fair way to allocate extra funding for food stamps, be sure to let us know 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.

Story: Joyelle got an education, a job, and a promotion. She never expected her success would mean this

Story: Joyelle got an education, a job, and a promotion. She never expected her success would mean this

Story: Joyelle got an education, a job, and a promotion. She never expected her success would mean this. . .

Joyelle never expected to be a position where the very system she thought was a safety net ultimately failed her.


After fleeing an abusive relationship, this single mother of four ended up in public housing in Lawrenceville, Georgia. Until that point, Joyelle had never relied on welfare for help. She always paid her rent on time and made ends meet. So, falling back on public housing was an entirely new scenario for her. It was not where or how she wanted to live, or where she wanted her four children to grow up. 

That’s why she was determined to get back on her feet. She graduated from school and was offered a full-time job with the state of Georgia, a career trajectory that put her above the poverty line. Things were looking up. 

“I was excited and grateful,” Joyelle says. “I had worked hard: I started out with the state as a student assistant and worked my way up.”


Falling over the benefits cliff

But that’s when Joyelle got a shocking surprise: Due to her new salary, her subsidized housing allowance disappeared and she was forced to pay almost $1,000 a month in rent.

“I was heartbroken,” she says of learning that she was losing her housing subsidy. “You work hard. They tell you to go to school and get a job. You do all these things, and you’re still not able to provide for your family. That’s devastating. I suffer from anxiety. It causes stress. It causes severe depression.”

She now faces the difficult decision of looking to move but being unable to afford apartment rent even with her salary increase.



Hindering upward mobility

Joyelle encountered what we call the “benefit cliff,” where well-intentioned policies actually prevent people from getting off public services. They make just enough to not qualify for services, but not enough to make up for the services lost in extra income. The result is a system that keeps people trapped in poverty rather than one that propels them toward self-sufficiency and the dignity that comes with it.

“There’s no help for people like me, stuck in the wealth gap,” Joyelle shares. “You have help, but if you help yourself you’re faced with adversities that you shouldn’t be faced with.”

We believe that these services should move people into a prosperous life, not keep them stuck in cycles of dependency. Visit to learn more about ways to end benefits cliffs so that more Georgians can prosper.


How Can You Measure Welfare Program Success? Part 2

How Can You Measure Welfare Program Success? Part 2

How Can You Measure Welfare Program Success?

Part 2

By Erik Randolph

My last blog explained dependency metrics and how they measure the success of welfare programs. However, these metrics are not the complete answer.

By also following people after they leave the system, we can gain a fuller picture of success.

This technique is common for job training programs. In fact, it is a requirement for state and local agencies receiving federal funding per the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, where agencies routinely measure the status and income of persons up to a year after  exiting the job training program. 

Follow-the-person metrics can be used for welfare programs as well, as Kansas and Maine already  demonstrate. 


Background on Food Stamp Work Requirements

 When the U.S. economy was recovering from the Great Recession, the states of Kansas and Maine led the nation in reinstating the federal work requirement for “Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents” (ABAWDs).   

The news media generally criticized the governments of Kansas and Maine for reinstating the rule, claiming it was cruel to push ABAWDs off food assistance. Kansas and Maine responded with follow-the-person data. 

Shortly thereafter in 2015—while Barack Obama was still president—the federal Food and Nutrition Service urged all other states to follow the federal law by reinstating the ABAWD rule. However, most states were hesitant to do so, and they continued seeking waivers and exemptions from enforcing it.

Federal law has two work requirements for the food stamp program. There is the general work requirement for persons ages 19 through 59 with notable exceptions, such as being in school half-time, physically or mentally unfit for employment, or caring for a child under six years of age or an incapacitated person. Under the general work requirement, the recipient must register for work or otherwise have good cause if they are not working at least 30 hours per week or enrolled in a job-training or workfare program. 

The second work requirement is specific to ABAWDs. This rule applies to persons ages 18 through 49, unless they are already exempt from the general work requirement or if they are responsible for a child under 18 years of age, or pregnant. Non-exempt ABAWDs cannot receive benefits for more than three months in a 36-month period unless they work for an average of 20 hours per week on a monthly basis or they participate in an approved “employment and training” program. 

States may, and routinely do, waive the ABAWD rule in areas within their state with unemployment over 10 percent, and they have the discretion to exempt up to 15% of persons from the requirement. 

During the Great Recession, Congress suspended the ABAWD rule until September 20, 2010, but many states continued waiving the requirement well into 2017. 


Kansas and Maine Break New Ground 

Under the administration of Governor Sam Brownback, Kansas restored the ABAWD rule in October 2013. The Kansas Department for Children and Families, with the help of the state’s Department of Labor, followed the wages of individuals exiting the food stamp program. Departments of labor typically administer unemployment insurance programs that collect wage data. 

According to a report by the Foundation for Government Accountability, Kansas had 28,144 ABAWDs on food stamps in October 2013. One year later, in October 2014, there were 9,193. The following October, the number dropped to 7,601.

The drop in enrollment among this population may be alarming if one assumes these individuals were worse off, as many in the news media did. However, the follow-the-person data showed otherwise. On average, the annual wages of these individuals rose above the poverty line, from $6,703 in December 2013 to $13,304 in the fourth quarter of 2014. 


Maine had a similar experience.

No longer requesting an ABAWD waiver in 2014, the Maine Departments of Labor and Health & Human Services cooperated in following the wages of the 6,866 who did not comply with the reinstatement of the work requirement and exited the program. The Governor’s Office of Policy and Management under the political leadership of Governor Paul LePage analyzed the wage data. Its report showed total wages for this group more than doubled from the third quarter of 2014 to the fourth quarter in 2015. On average, quarterly wages increased from $1,984 to $3,514, also raising the wages of many ABAWDs above the poverty level. 



What Follow-the-Person Metrics Could Mean for Georgia and Other States

Unfortunately, both Kansas and Maine abandoned the follow-the-person data collection—not for policy reasons related to the effectiveness of the metrics but because of changes in political leadership.

Nevertheless, the states demonstrated that follow-the-person metrics can be applied to welfare programs in addition to job training programs. There is no good reason why Georgia and other states could not also implement follow-the-person metrics for welfare programs by having their welfare agencies cooperate with their departments of labor.

Additionally, states are not limited to using department of labor wage data. They could also initiate surveys to collect more detailed data on the well-being of individuals after exiting a program. 

Do you think it would be good for Georgia to begin using dependency and follow-the-person metrics to measure the success of welfare programs? Let us know 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.


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.