For the last 15 years or so, I’ve peered out across many crowded rooms filled to capacity with bright-eyed, on occasion teary-eyed, Georgians. So many are desperate for solutions to help improve their communities, especially the families struggling to get by. And I’ve looked into the faces of leaders of elected, community, faith and business groups and can’t forget their similar pleas for some solutions. From large conference center stages in Athens, Jekyll Island, Augusta and Dalton to church basements and community centers in Macon, Jesup, Albany, Valdosta, Montezuma, Eatonton, Dawsonville and LaGrange, the underlying needs and values are the same. Families are the backbone of our communities and if our families are strong, so our state will be too. Georgia’s economy is stronger when more people prosper.
Unfortunately, in Georgia far too many measures and national indices, whether its health, the economy, or education, indicate many Georgia families are not faring well, working yet not economically secure. I’ve seen the reality of what this looks like from metro Atlanta to south and north Georgia. Depending on where you live in Georgia, you may not have the best schools, or best jobs available to you. Your community may not have the resources needed to help families get ahead due to lack of a strong tax or economic base. So, the economy isn’t working for everyone.
How do we strengthen families? How do we strengthen Georgia’s economy? How do we ensure everyone has a fair shot to succeed and create a secure future for their family no matter where they live?
A silver bullet doesn’t exist. We know we need a holistic approach. We know it will take a host of strategies, a collaborative effort, public-private partnerships and investment, and time. And, we do know the government can’t do it alone. But that doesn’t take elected leaders off the hook, either. The role of public policy is critical to knocking down barriers and obstacles that hold people back and limit access to opportunity. Through sound policy and vision public officials can to set a course of action and create funding priorities and investments that create a better landscape in which families can thrive.
Here are a few realistic steps Georgia can take that can make a real difference in the lives of many people.
Bottom-Up Tax Cut
Creating a Georgia version of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit provides a modest yet critical boost to workers in jobs that don’t pay a lot of money, such as retail sales and food service. The credit allows families to keep more of what they earn and afford things like child care and transportation, which in turn can help them work their way out of poverty and into the middle class. Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia already offer this tax credit. State versions of the federal tax credit are a targeted, affordable way to cut state taxes from the bottom up, help workers reach the middle class, strengthen small businesses and bolster local economies. Georgia’s would benefit more than a million households. Our recent report explains how it could work.
Make Work Pay
If Georgia phases in a state minimum wage of $10.10 an hour over three years, nearly 1 million Georgians stand to get a raise, according to estimates provided by the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. About one in four Georgia women and one in five Georgia men would get a pay increase under that scenario. Nearly half of the people who could benefit are in families that make from $20,000 to $60,000 a year. An increased minimum wage would put millions of dollars in the pockets of Georgia workers, who would spend that money in local shops and restaurants and boost Georgia’s economy. See our report “Better Pay for Honest Work” for more on this.
Shrink the Coverage Gap
To work and thrive, people need to be healthy. Georgia is home to more than 500,000 people without health insurance who could get it if the state closed the coverage gap. State lawmakers can do this by expanding access to Medicaid which can help people afford to see a doctor when they are sick instead of visiting emergency rooms for primary care. The use of emergency rooms for routine treatment is causing our rural hospitals to hemorrhage dollars from the costs of uncompensated care. It’s important to remember who Georgia’s uninsured are. About three in 10 of the Georgians who could get coverage care for dependent children at home and nearly six in 10 of these parents are employed. For more, see the chart book we recently co-produced, “Understanding Medicaid in Georgia and the Opportunity to Improve It.”
Improve Access to Skills and Training
A good-paying job is elusive for someone who didn’t have access to quality K-12 schools, or post-secondary training and skills. Education is critical not only for our youngest students, but also for adults in need of basic education and skills to enhance their opportunities. The guidance provided in the federal Workforce and Innovation Opportunity Act of 2014 to prioritize training and supports for low-skilled adults and direct funding to help adults transition to postsecondary education gives Georgia a tremendous opportunity. Georgia can better employ Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funding to support adults completing their GEDs, getting other credentials and training to become more economically secure.
The cost of higher education continues to climb, which is a tremendous barrier to many families. With HOPE limits, Georgia needs to expand access to need-based financial aid so that people can get post-secondary training, education and skills to compete for the growing number of jobs that will require advanced diplomas and certificates.
Georgia’s governor set a goal to add 250,000 new college graduates by 2020 and that becomes more attainable if the state increases the HOPE Grant award to cover full tuition and fees at a technical college. Low-income working parents are barely able to make ends meet each month after they pay for housing, food, transportation and child care. No cash is left in the monthly budget to further their education. These parents need financial aid to attend college. The HOPE Grant is a primary source of financial aid in Georgia. It provides a clear path for many Georgians to gain the skills they need for a job that pays well.
Solutions Within our Grasp
I can understand why people can feel overwhelmed by the sheer scope of the challenges that seem to stand between the Georgia where everyone prospers and the one we have today. So many communities are home to challenges like generational poverty that even well-meaning people in positions of leadership feel powerless to make a difference. But these are not problems without solutions.
Georgia can make investments in solutions that help people put a roof over their heads and food on the table, that ensure all children get a great start, that provide a decent wage, create job security, puts us on a path to a better Georgia. All it takes is the will to make it so to create a Georgia that recognizes that the success of every child, every family and every community matters to us all.