ATLANTA – A new university report shows a growing gap between the number of adults and children getting welfare in Georgia, with commentators split on whether it demonstrates success or failure.

Where they agree is on the benefit of job-creation strategies, even as the state’s unemployment rate continues to improve.

Monday, Gov. Nathan Deal unveiled a new state program designed to provide internships as part of the effort to boost employment. He announced that 30 companies have committed to hiring interns and apprentices in what he calls Georgia WorkSmart.

The program is focused on training for jobs where employers need lots of workers.

“This collaboration between the public and private sectors will continue making our state more attractive for businesses,” he said.

Boosting job opportunities is the prescription for the welfare-enrollment declines, according to Kelly McCutchen, president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank.

“The report highlights the success of the ’90s bipartisan welfare reforms, which put reasonable limits on the length of public assistance and required work,” he said. “Restoring the dignity of work is critical to avoiding dependency.”

But a policy analyst at a liberal think tank, the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, reads trouble in the report.

“If the aim of the reform was to create self-sufficiency and help people to better themselves, especially for children, then we haven’t achieved that because we still have 264,000 families in poverty,” said the institute’s Melissa Johnson.

The report by Georgia State University shows a steady decline in adults receiving cash assistance since 2000 under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. But the number of children getting assistance has remained fairly constant.

It also tracked families getting food stamps, showing that those numbers rose and fell depending on the overall economy.

The difference in the enrollment is based on policy changes included in the “welfare reform” during the Clinton administration that added work requirements for adults and limited how long they could collect benefits. The food stamp program and children’s benefits don’t have those limits, notes Eric Cochling, vice president of policy at the Georgia Center for Opportunity, another conservative think tank.

“Given the various limitations, TANF is not the best barometer of the actual needs of poor families – and certainly not of poor individuals, who are basically not eligible for the program,” he said.

He and Johnson agree the state should change its eligibility rules so that someone who gets a job is not suddenly cut off from cash assistance, but rather to taper the payments based on what the job pays. That would allow the person to pay off some bills and remove the possibility that welfare would pay more than the job, leading to an incentive not to work at all.

Where Johnson differs is in arguing that census figures show there are thousands of families who may be working but still live below the federal poverty line. She called for the state to use more taxpayer money to provide benefits to those other families beyond the $173 million is already spends.

Providing each of those families the benefit level for a two-person family could cost state taxpayers $745 million.

A committee of legislators is looking at ways to strengthen Georgia’s welfare program. Most of its focus has been on eliminating fraud and waste.

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