Commentary: Opportunity's Knocking Hard at Georgia's Door

Benita M. Dodd

Thursday, November 5th, 2015

Six years after the economic downturn, the job market for able-bodied adults in Georgia remains one of the worst in the nation, according to recent figures. The challenge is not insurmountable, but strengthening the job market and Georgia’s economy requires the buy-in of this state’s policy-makers.

Georgia has experienced the second-largest decline in the nation in the employment rate for 25- to 54-year-olds – the prime working years – the Pew Center reports. Today, there are 5.4 fewer working 25- to 54-year-olds out of every 100 than there were in 2007. Only New Mexico beat out Georgia for last place.

Add to that the startling numbers that led to Georgia’s slate of criminal justice reforms: Pew reported in 2009 that one Georgia adult in every 13 was under some form of correctional supervision – at 7.7 percent, the highest rate in the nation. It was still the highest in 2013 (the most recent data available), as reforms were phased in: 624,200 people – 8.29 out of every 100 Georgia adults – under correctional supervision. Just 91,600 were actually incarcerated. The reforms will lead to continued reductions.  

Consider the barriers to gainful employment. For ex-offenders, too often it’s “Katy bar the door:” Checking the box to disclose a criminal history can immediately shut you out. To his credit, this year Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed an executive order to “ban the box” for state job applicants, noting that 1,300 offenders a month are released without employment.

Consider the disincentives: The Heartland Institute’s 2015 Welfare Reform Report Card ranked Georgia 44th in the nation – and gave it an F grade – for welfare reform policies. Without robust welfare reform that emphasizes the temporary nature of assistance and highlights the dignity of work, few welfare recipients are inspired to leave welfare for jobs. The state’s grades, by category:

C for work requirements for recipient eligibility
F for cash diversion – allowing case workers to give lump sum cash for short-term needs
C for service integration, which allows coordination of efforts
C for lifetime limits on aid
D for sanctions to secure compliance with eligibility requirement.  

For those who do want to work, opportunity is stifled by state licensing requirements, a costly burden for low-income individuals. Little has changed since the Institute for Justice reported in 2012 that Georgia has the 18th most burdensome requirements in the nation for occupational licensing. The Institute found Georgia requires licenses for 33 out of the 102 moderate-income occupations it studied nationwide. On average, the licensing costs Georgians $167 in fees and 324 days in training and requires them to pass two exams.

It’s no surprise that so many abled-bodied individuals are unemployed in Georgia.

This week the governor launched Georgia WorkSmart, a work-based learning initiative to meet workforce needs through apprenticeships, internships and cooperative education opportunities. Thirty Georgia companies have committed to the initiative. It's another step in the right direction.

Georgia has become a national model for criminal justice reforms that encourage both adults and juvenile offenders to transition into the community as productive members of society. But there are more opportunities for leadership that raises the employment rate and enhance communities and the economy:

-Reform welfare policies by embracing eligibility requirements centered on a return to work and self-sufficiency.

-Encourage ban-the-box policies in the private sector: As Gov. Deal noted in his executive order, “Such policies allow returning citizens an opportunity to explain their unique circumstances in person to a potential employer.”

-Continue civil asset forfeiture reforms to require (at most) a conviction before assets are seized and (at least) that all proceeds go to the general treasury instead of directly to law enforcement agencies. Too often, “policing for profit” hurts the most vulnerable in communities: people who can’t afford the legal assistance to retrieve their property. When it’s a car that’s seized, it can mean the difference between a job and unemployment.

-Reduce the burden of licensing requirements to open up job opportunities. The Institute for Justice proposes a sensible “right to work” approach: “A person has a right to engage in a lawful business free from any substantial burden imposed by a business regulation, unless the government demonstrates that (a) it has a compelling interest in protecting against present and recognizable harm to the public health or safety, and (b) the business regulation is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

The road to the American Dream is fraught with bumps in Georgia. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation has insisted throughout its existence that government’s role is not to create jobs but to get out of the way. Georgians deserve to be able to earn an honest living. Government has an obligation to facilitate the opportunity.

Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.