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Many Georgians struggle; it doesn't have to be
Taifa Butler
Taifa Smith Butler is executive director of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, an independent think tank that analyzes budget and tax policies and aims to inspire responsible decision-making. - photo by File photo

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 to church basements and community centers in Jesup, 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, far too many measures indicate that many Georgia families are not faring well — working, yet not economically secure. I’ve seen the reality of what this looks like across the state. Depending on where you live 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 because of 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 that all have a fair shot to succeed and create a secure future for their families 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 and time. And we do know the government can’t do it alone. But that doesn’t take elected leaders off the hook. 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 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. 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 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, strengthen small businesses and bolster local economies. Such a credit in Georgia would benefit more than a million households.

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 the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute in Washington. About 1 in 4 Georgia women and 1 in 5 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.
Shrink the coverage gap

To work and thrive, people need to be healthy. Georgia is home to more than 500,000 people without health coverage. State lawmakers can solve 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 3 in 10 of the Georgians who could get coverage care for dependent children at home and nearly 6 in 10 of these parents are employed.

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 postsecondary training and skills. 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 Scholarship and Grant limits, Georgia needs to expand access to need-based financial aid so people can get postsecondary 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, which will put us on a path to a better Georgia. All it takes to create a Georgia that recognizes that the success of every child, family and community matters to us all is the will to make it so.

Editor's note: This is the second of two parts.

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