Georgia Works “works”
Homelessness is a serious problem in many urban communities around the world and in the United States. In the city of Atlanta, at any given time there are approximately 7,000 people sleeping on the streets. 5,500 of these 7,000 are “episodically homeless”— individuals and families who had a home, but due to an acute negative event lost the ability to pay their rent. For these unlucky individuals and families, financial aid is often the boost that they need to help get back on their feet. The other 1,500 homeless people in Atlanta are “chronically homeless” (Closer Look). Many of them have been homeless for quite some time. They do not have a support system. They are often former felons, drug addicts or alcoholics, and there is no end in sight to their homelessness. These chronically homeless males are the people that the Georgia Works program is helping to turn their lives around.
William McGahan retired from a successful career in investment banking in 2012 at the age of 50, and immediately dedicated his life to serving community organizations and working on non-profit boards predominantly in the Atlanta area. In October of 2013, McGahan founded Georgia Works: an independent corporation with 501(c)(3) non-profit status (Exempt Organizations). Georgia Works’ mission is to end homelessness, criminal recidivism, and for graduates of their 12 month program to find a permanent job and permanent housing. It is modeled after the “Ready Willing & Able” program founded in 1990 that had great success helping the homeless populations of New York City and Philadelphia secure permanent housing and employment and become tax paying members of the community. Georgia Works is a life-changing program that not only gives hope to participants, but also benefits residents of Atlanta by improving the community.
McGahan describes the typical Georgia Works participant as “A middle aged African-American male who has been arrested numerous times. He is likely a felon who has child support obligations and has not held a steady job for nearly two years. He’s been homeless at least a year, and he has a history of substance abuse” (Georgia Works!). Homeless males who volunteer for Georgia Works must agree to the following conditions to be admitted to the program:
- Remain drug and alcohol free (submit to random testing every 48-72 hours).
- Work 30 to 35 hours per week.
- Get along and respect others.
- Agree to end public assistance (with the exception of Medicaid).
- Sign documentation allowing staff to identify if they have current child support orders or arrearages.
- Agree to save 20% of income. This “forced savings” will allow clients to have saved approximately $2,000 upon graduation from the program.
By agreeing to these conditions, homeless males can be admitted to the housing units provided to Georgia Works members for a 30 day trial-period known as the “pre-program” where they will immediately begin receiving work-training, and a stipend for food and other needs. At the end of the 30 days, their peers vote on whether or not to allow them into the Georgia Works family (if they do not get voted in, most likely due to their failure to get along and respect others, they can always try again).
Upon passing the pre-program, formerly homeless individuals are on their way to turning their lives around. Georgia Works has secured contracts with Atlanta neighborhoods, as well as partnerships with local landscaping, recycling, and construction companies to put their members to work. A common job is cleaning up public spaces including picking up trash. Program participants work 30-35 hours per week earning $7.40 per hour while remaining drug and alcohol free. Georgia Works has a zero tolerance drug and alcohol policy and members who fail a test are kicked out of the program. However, Georgia Works always opens its doors to former participants who are ready to try to turn their lives around again. By earning $222 per week, participants are able to pay $100 rent, deposit $50 into a savings account, and have $72 to spend as they please. In addition, case management, life skills, and workforce training is provided throughout the twelve months. This holistic program aims at personal development of good habits, work ethic and character with the goal of self-sufficiency.
Providing food, shelter, steady work with pay, a forced savings program, and a strong incentive to stay away from drugs and alcohol is not all that Georgia Works does for participants. I called the Georgia Works office and had the opportunity to speak with Executive Director Phil Hunter and ask him a few questions. When I asked about what Georgia Works does to support graduates, he informed me that they offer in house assistance to help members acquire GEDs which boosts their earnings potential by $7,000-$9,000. They assist members in reacquiring drivers’ licenses by helping them pay fines, go to D.U.I. school, and take them to driving exams which not only improves their quality of life and self-sufficiency, but also raises earnings potential. The companies that they partner with teach workers valuable skills including construction and welding. They have even hired a full time certified addiction counselor to help participants reconnect with friends and family. This has proved to be an invaluable resource for graduates because often, while they have recovered, the people they have hurt have not, and they need help to mend fences and re-enter relationships. All graduates are checked in on by staff 3-4 times in the first year after graduation to see if they need anything and make sure they are staying on track. Georgia Works even hosts alumni breakfasts for members of the community to keep in touch, and stay strong in their quest to put their mistakes behind them and live a normal self-sufficient life.
Georgia Works has had an incredible impact on the lives of its members, and the neighborhoods of Atlanta. As a result of the program, the individuals involved become self-sufficient, and transform their lives from a hopeless situation to having a future with friends and family. The communities have a reduced homeless population, and are cleaner as a result of the work that participants are doing to pick up trash and keep public areas clean. The employees, standing proud in their uniforms, also serve as an inspiration to the other homeless, drug addicts, and alcoholics that there is a place where they too can turn their lives around. The success rate of the Georgia Works program as well as other statistics provided on their website are very impressive. Since its inception in October of 2013, 156 men have come through the twelve-month program. Of those 156, 70 of them are currently involved with the program today and off the streets. 42 members have graduated to complete self-sufficiency. That is a success rate of 72% of members who have enrolled in Georgia Works that remain off the streets and on their way towards or have already achieved self-sufficiency! Some other notable statistics include:
- 32 men currently enrolled in the program are working on jobs that can lead to full-time positions.
- 90% of men that have graduated from Georgia Works are still in their original jobs and apartments.
- $18,000: The cost of incarcerating a man for one year in Georgia.
- $10,000: The cost of taking a man through Georgia Works from homelessness to being a taxpayer.
- $13: The average hourly wage of Georgia Works graduates. That is above the living wage in Atlanta, achieving their goal of self-sufficiency for graduates.
- Many graduates make substantially more than $13/hour, as high as $20.
- 20: The number of graduates who have reacquired their driving privileges.
- 6: The number of positive drug and alcohol tests out of 1000’s since inception.
- 0: The number of members or graduates who have been arrested since joining.
- 90% of men who are now in contact with their children and families.
These results paint the portrait of a company that is doing a great service to individuals and to the community as a whole in Atlanta, and possibly could serve as a blueprint for more programs like this in other urban areas. To quote a recent graduate: “Georgia Works Works. It’s that simple.” (Georgia Works!).
The above portion of this work provides a snapshot of the Georgia Works program. I will now proceed to analyze the output and policies of the Georgia Works program through an ethical lens. Specifically, this analysis will study the conditionality’s faced by participants who wish to enter the Georgia Works program and whether or not they are ethically virtuous.
The first condition that jumps out at a reader looking over the Georgia Works program is that participants in the program are required to give up all government aid and subsidies aside from Medicare if they wish to join the program. On the surface, it is hard to understand the virtue of forcing a poor person to forgo his rightful government support. The stated goal of Georgia Works is to reduce homelessness, criminal recidivism, and to graduate self-sufficient men with permanent jobs and permanent homes. Does forgoing government subsidies aid participants in accomplishing this mission? As an outsider, one could read into this condition and come to the conclusion that Georgia Works believes that these homeless (and predominantly black) men have a character flaw: they are lazy, they have been riding the coattails of tax paying citizens, and the reason that they are poor is that they do not work hard enough because they rely on public assistance. During my conversation with executive director Phil Hunter, I asked him about this curious condition for Georgia Works participants. He explained how the “no handout” policy’s purpose is both financial and for the psychological protection of participants. Immediately upon being accepted to the program, participants receive a stipend that is of greater value than food stamps. Housing is also free until they begin working. Because they get their housing through the program, and they eat meals through the program, the participants do not have a need for food stamps. Phil and I did not discuss welfare checks, but by extrapolating his food stamp logic I believe reasoning for forgoing this assistance is that while participants are in the program, they are not subject to a quality of life that is associated with living below the poverty line, and that is why they do not need welfare checks. There is scholarly ethical reasoning that supports his logic: William Beveridge states that “The correlative of the State’s undertaking to ensure adequate benefit for unavoidable interruption of earnings, however long, in enforcement of the citizen’s obligation to seek and accept all reasonable opportunities of work and to co-operate in all measures designed to save him from habituation to idleness” (Mead 102). In this case, it is a private corporation rather than the state which is providing the opportunity for earnings. Beveridge argues that it is not unethical in a virtuous sense to impose a condition on a worker who is seeking and accepting a reasonable opportunity for work, especially one that is designed to save him from habituation to idleness. When the idea of the program is to promote self-sufficiency, and the program has set up a path for the worker to achieve this goal over the course of a full year of hard work, responsibility, and sobriety, it is possible to make the argument that the program has instilled this condition to make sure that the program is not undermined by giving the participant too much too soon before he is ready to actually be self-sufficient. This condition is not enacted because of racism or elitism, rather it is benevolent because it is in the best interest of the person subject to the condition and thus it is virtuous.
Speaking of the condition of sobriety, participants are conditionally subject to frequent drug and alcohol testing if they wish to enter the program. This is another example of a participant being subject to a rule which other citizens, including his superiors, are not subject to. This condition also has ethical literature to support its virtue. In his Letter Concerning Toleration, John Locke proposes that if the goal of a condition is to improve a man as a person based on a subjective set of circumstances, then it is not virtuous. However, if the goal is to increase the man’s likelihood of achieving his civil interests—his interest in life, freedom, and access to material goods—then this conditionality may be virtuous” (89-90). When trying to help a population of which a large majority have previously battled drug addiction and alcoholism, a zero-tolerance condition on drug and alcohol use would seem to logically increase a man’s likelihood of achieving his “civil interests” and thus this condition also may be virtuous. A different argument is made by Alan Deacon: “someone is obligated to make the most of opportunities created for them by others” (146). Deacon argues that if Georgia Works is acting benevolently towards its participants, then it is not acting unethically if it creates conditions that help the participants make the most of the opportunities that it has created for them.
A Third condition that’s importance to achieving the goals of Georgia Works for its participants is not immediately clear is that participants must sign documentation allowing staff to identify if they have current child support orders or arrearages. This condition forces participants to give away private information that other citizens are not required to divulge. Stuart White argues that “by subjecting welfare recipients to disciplines from which others are free, conditionality demeans them” (82). However, there is no malicious intent with this condition; rather, Georgia Works is being virtuous to the very people who have been most hurt by the participants inability to lead a self-sufficient life. As Georgia Works helps these men turn their lives around, this condition insures that their children, wives, or other family members they might owe money to and most likely have hurt at some point will be able to enjoy the benefits that are owed to them as well. In Alan Deacon’s opinion: “it is possible that a welfare contractualist such as [Stuart] White could agree that some obligations should be enforced whatever the level of social injustice” (147). Thus it is possible that given these circumstances, Stuart White would agree that this conditionality is virtuous and just.
In my opinion, Georgia Works should serve as a blueprint for other urban areas dealing with a large homeless population. Georgia Works provides a life changing opportunity to leave an otherwise hopeless situation of chronic-homelessness. They embody the age-old saying of “if you teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime.” This program is beneficial to the homeless population, their friends and family, neighborhoods that have large homeless populations, and the communities which Georgia Works workers clean up. Furthermore, based on my analysis, the conditionality that participants are subject to not only is ethical and virtuous, but also is beneficial to the goals of the program and the participants.
“Closer Look at the Chronically Homeless.” CBS46 News. N.p., 17 Jan. 2014. Web. 01 Apr. 2015.
“Exempt Organizations Business Master File Extract (EO BMF).” Exempt Organizations Business Master File Extract (EO BMF). IRS, 10 Mar. 2015. Web. 01 Apr. 2015.
“Georgia Works!” Georgia Works. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Apr. 2015.
Mead, Lawrence M., and Christopher Beem. Welfare Reform and Political Theory. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2005. Print.
 The following information was collected through personal communication with Phil Hunter on March 30, 2015.
 The following information was collected through personal communication with Phil Hunter on March 30, 2015.