ATLANTA - Ten years ago this week, then-President Bill Clinton made good on a pledge to "end welfare as we know it" by signing landmark legislation creating a new work-based welfare program that set lifetime limits on public assistance.
A decade later, with work participation by welfare enrollees hovering near 70 percent, Georgia's program is being cited by human services bureaucrats and public policy wonks across the country as a model for what welfare reform was intended to achieve.
But a new report charges that behind the state's rosy work participation numbers lie plummeting welfare caseloads driven not so much by adult recipients being put to work as by families being thrown off the rolls.
The study, released by the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, warns that trend could grow worse as stricter work requirements adopted by Congress last winter take effect this fall.
"Georgia is being held up as a bellwether,'' said Liz Schott, a senior policy analyst with the center and the report's author. "But so much of this caseload decline that gets touted is people who aren't working and are not on welfare.''
But B.J. Walker, Georgia's commissioner of human resources, said it makes no sense - given the state's four-year lifetime limit on welfare benefits - to allow recipients to remain on the rolls indefinitely, using up their eligibility, if they aren't ready to get and keep a job.
She said most enrollees who leave the program for that reason have plenty of eligibility time left and can come back when they are ready.
"It's better for us to help them figure out how to ride the horse,'' she said. "We would do no good saying, 'Come on to (welfare) and sit.'''
History of reform
Clinton moved to overhaul the nation's welfare system in a larger context, as part of an effort to balance the federal budget that eventually paid off. Eliminating the red ink was hard to do while welfare caseloads were soaring.
Politically, the legislation also paid dividends for the Democratic president, as he took a campaign issue away from Republicans in an election year.
The bill scrapped the old program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and replaced it with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, a better sounding name to voters grown frustrated with welfare spending.
Structurally, welfare was converted into a program of block grants to states, giving them more flexibility in how to spend the money.
The one key mandate from the feds was that it carry a work requirement. To motivate enrollees, there also had to be a lifetime limit on eligibility.
"The major problem was the system itself,'' said state Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond, who helped oversee the beginnings of welfare reform in Georgia as director of the state Division of Family and Children Services. "It wasn't a work-based program. It encouraged dependence.''
Georgia's experience with welfare reform in the early years mirrored that of other states.
Thousands of adult recipients found jobs, with the state's help, and the welfare caseload dropped quickly. Between 1997 and 2000, average monthly caseloads fell by more than one half.
The numbers bumped back up during the recession early this decade.
But Thurmond, who was elected labor commissioner in 1998, said the economy wasn't the only factor.
By 2001, he said, the welfare recipients who were easiest to employ were gone from the rolls. That left people who couldn't get or keep jobs because they lacked education, job skills and, in some cases, were substance abusers.
His agency launched GoodWorks that year, a job-training program aimed at those hard-to-serve enrollees.
"They've been on (welfare) the longest and have the least educational attainment and work experience,'' Thurmond said. "It's a more intensive strategy.''
As the economy has rebounded during the last several years, Georgia welfare caseloads again have fallen significantly, and the program's work participation rate has skyrocketed.
Gov. Sonny Perdue announced at the end of May that since he took office in 2003, the number of welfare recipients either working or in a work training program has risen from 8.2 percent to 69 percent.
"Georgia is setting the example for the entire nation thanks to our thriving economy and (the Department of Human Resources') targeted welfare reforms,'' the governor said at the time.
Behind the numbers
But both the report and Georgia-based advocates for the poor say the rising work participation rate is happening because fewer families are on the welfare rolls, whether they still need assistance or not.
Lisa Krisher, director of litigation for Georgia Legal Services, said some thinly populated rural counties are reporting that they don't have a single adult on welfare.
"It's suspicious to me that they don't have any people with disabilities who can't get jobs because of their disabilities,'' she said.
The report charges that the DHR is putting pressure on county welfare offices to hit certain targets for reducing caseloads.
"The agency touts culture and message change as a big part of the caseload drop,'' the report said.
"That, at a minimum, raises questions about whether this message has been translated at the local office level into caseworkers actively discouraging families from ... applications for TANF assistance and encouraging families to leave the program.''
Walker denied that her agency is encouraging anyone to do "bad work'' to reduce caseloads. She said there's no need to resort to anything like that because Georgia has long been well within compliance of work participation requirements set by the 1996 federal law.
In fact, she said the percentage of welfare recipients leaving the program because they're earning too much to remain eligible for assistance has risen in the last two years from 26 percent to 36 percent.
"We continually ask ourselves where we are, who's on the caseloads and what we need to do,'' she said.
Walker also dismisses fears that county welfare workers will start throwing people out of the program in October, when the stricter federal work requirements kick in. She said Georgia's already about where it needs to be to meet the tougher standards.
"I could see how it could be a problem in some states,'' she said. "Two years ago, we started doing the work we thought would get our people more involved in work activity.''