By Mark Levinson
Vol. 1, No. 3, 1978, p. 24
The debate over Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) is one of the perennial attractions of the Georgia legislature. Each year, when all the other issues have been settled, when every legislator’s pet project is safely funded, AFDC remains, the subject for posturing and polemics, last-minute pleas and a final, anticlimactic vote. When they cut up the budgetary pie in Georgia, the slice that’s left over goes for AFDC.
AFDC is the program commonly called “welfare.” Though it started over 40 years ago as one of several New Deal programs to provide income to the poor, AFDC alone has come to bear the stigma of a “welfare” program. Common preconceptions of shiftless welfare mothers having babies and driving Cadillacs have come to obscure the fact that the principal beneficiaries of AFDC are children, children who are deprived of parental care because of the absence or disability of one or both parents. Over one in eight children in the United States today is receiving AFDC benefits.
It has in so many other things, the South has lagged well behind the rest of the nation in AFDC benefit levels. Of the 12 Southern states, only Virginia pays AFDC benefits above the national average. The rest are on the bottom of the ladder, from Kentucky, where the maximum benefit for a family of four was $220 a month in 1977, to Mississippi, where the same family could get $60. In Georgia, the most a family of four can receive is $148 a month.
But the annual debate in the Georgia General Assembly deals with more than just the amount of AFDC benefits. The conservative leadership of the House of Representatives, led by Appropriations Committee Chairman Joe Frank Harris, has made a practice of inserting restrictions into the state budget each year which keep the AFDC appropriation, in the same budget, from being spent in its entirety. Thus, legislators seeking more money for AFDC recipients are forced to seek technical changes in the language of the appropriations bill in addition to a larger appropriation.
In 1975, AFDC had grown to take up 7.6 percent of Georgia’s state budget; over $138 million was apppropriated for AFDC. But in that year, fiscal crisis struck. Sales and income tax receipts dropped drastically due to the recession, and Gov. George Busbee called the General Assembly into special session to cut the budget. Teachers’ pay raises and property tax relief got the ax. So did AFDC. Over $10 million was cut from the welfare budget. The percentage of the state’s own estimate of need which was actually paid to recipients dropped from 71 percent to 62 percent, cutting the maximum grant for a family of four from $161 to $141 per month.
What followed reads like a comedy of errors. In addition to the percentage limitation, the legislature had decreed that in no case could the average benefit per recipient exceed $32 per month. When the percentage of need paid was lowered, thousands of people receiving tiny benefits (and thus remaining eligible for Medicaid) were cut from the rolls. Without their $1 and $2 per month payments dragging down the average, it rose above $32. Since this was illegal, another cut in benefits had to be made. Again, thousands of beneficiaries with low payments were cut from the rolls, raising the average again. The process repeated itself one more time before state officials were able to bring it to a halt. By the time the dust cleared, over 100,000 people had been cut from the rolls in a six-month period, including almost all the “working poor.”
The intervening three years have been spent defensively, in a successful attempt to ward off further cuts in AFDC. Much of that modest success has been due to the efforts of Francis Pauley, an indefatigable 76-year-old former HEW worker who spends her retirement working for the Georgia Poverty Rights Organization. For four years, Pauley has stumped the state, meeting with church and civic groups, legal services clients’ councils and local activists from Rome to Brunswick. During the legislative session from January to March, she spends much of her time at the Capitol, lobbying legislators and challenging anti-AFDC pronouncements by the leadership.
Pauley’s work has had a cumulative effect. Today, while misunderstanding is still widespread, AFDC is clearly on the political agenda in Georgia. New groups, such as a ministerial organization called Christians Against Hunger in Georgia, have formed as concern about the low level of AFDC benefits has spread far beyond the activist community. Groups in every part of the state are organizing to contact their legislators about AFDC. A statewide public information campaign is underway to counteract common public misconceptions about AFDC. So far, the signs are positive. The state Board of Human Resources has recommended a 30 percent AFDC increase in its budget for 1980, and the increase has survived the first round of budget cuts proposed by Busbee.
One of the difficulties with AFDC in Georgia is that it is, to a large extent, a racial issue. Five out of six AFDC recipients are Black, so in counties with a small Black voting population, a vote against AFDC is a safe vote. Some rural representatives from areas with large Black populations have become solid supporters of AFDC; in turn, Black voters have kept administration floor leader Rep. Roy Lambert (D-Madison) and veteran Sen. Culver Kidd (D-Milledgeville) in office.
Each year, a few more votes are added to the small core of pro-AFDC legislators. But the proAFDC faction is still a minority. If there’s one thing that has become clear in Georgia, it is that legislation to benefit poor people will not come about through reliance on the conscience of legislators. In 1978, the name of the game is organization.
Marc Levinson, former news editor of Creative Loafing/The Atlantan is the coordinator of the Public Assistance Coalition in Atlanta and writes frequently for Atlanta Magazine.