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Pregnant Women in Georgia Could Qualify for Welfare. Here’s What We Know.

The number of families on government cash assistance has dwindled dramatically in the past two decades. Will a proposed bill help?

Under Georgia House Bill 129, women who are pregnant with a low income will be able to apply for welfare. (Getty Images)

Expecting mothers in low-income households might get some relief if new legislation is passed.

Under House Bill 129, filed on behalf of Gov. Brian Kemp, pregnant women who qualify can apply for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, also known as welfare. 

HB 129 is just one part of Kemp’s initiative to solve the state’s maternal health crisis. Last year, the state expanded Medicaid coverage for low-income women to one year after childbirth — previously it was just six months. While advocates say the extension and other initiatives to solve maternal mortality helps, the dwindling access to welfare makes them wonder if this bill will reach people who need it most. 

Capital B Atlanta explains what the bill would do, and if it will be effective under the state’s goal to address our poor maternal health outcomes. 

What is welfare?

The current welfare system in Georgia dates back to 1997. Its purpose is to provide direct cash assistance to low-income families in single-parent households. While it’s still serving its purpose, the program has received criticism for not growing as quickly as other anti-poverty initiatives, like food stamps or refundable tax credits. Its access has also dwindled dramatically in the state. According to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, the number of families receiving cash assistance for every 100 in poverty tanked from 82 in 1996 to five in 2019. 

“It’s broken, and even with some of the reforms, it’s still not set up to empower people to not need it,” said Toni Watkins, the voter engagement director at Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity — or URGE — in Georgia. 

Who qualifies for welfare now? 

To qualify for welfare, low-income households have to have a child under 18 years old who is facing deprivation for one of three reasons, according to the Division of Family and Children’s Services. That includes the continued absence of one parent from the home, physical or mental incapacity of one parent, or the death of a parent. 

How would HB 129 change that?

Right now, only people who already have children qualify for welfare. If HB 129 passes, women who are pregnant with a low income can apply. 

Madeline Sutton, an obstetrics and gynecology doctor at Grady Memorial Hospital and the founder of One Brain 4 Health, said she wonders if expanding welfare eligibility is in direct correlation with Georgia’s most recent abortion restrictions that insist that an embryo is a person. 

“I wonder if this expansion in Georgia is tied to those data to try to help with maternal mortality, but also to encourage those who might have otherwise made more efforts to terminate a pregnancy if they needed to,” she said. 

How would the bill help Black maternal health care?

Georgia is one of the most dangerous states to give birth, especially for Black women. According to data from the Georgia Department of Public Health, Black women are 2.3 times more likely to die from pregnancy related causes than white women.

With that in mind, Watkins is skeptical of whether the bill would adequately address the maternal health crisis. 

“Honestly, I don’t think it’s going to help very much,” Watkins said. “Maternal mortality rates, definitely in a place like Georgia, are not only dictated by people’s financial positioning or hierarchy. It has a lot to do with race. It has a lot to do with access to medical care.”

Watkins and Sutton agree that a solution to the state’s maternal health issues could be figuring out how to expand medical access for birthing people. 

The state has been short of OB/GYNs for years, and access continues to dwindle. Between 1994 and 2020, 38 labor and delivery units have closed in Georgia, six of them being in metro Atlanta. The closure of Atlanta Medical Center added at least one more labor and delivery unit closure, along with an OB/GYN closure that fell under AMC.  

Sutton says that while Medicaid extension and welfare expansion is a good start, access to care is key to solving the state’s maternal health issues. 

“I think what’s also going to be important are those things that we can do to address systemic racism and the access piece that keeps people from getting the care that they need in a timely fashion while they’re still pregnant,” she said. “Those things that can make sure that more hospitals remain open, that people who are in more rural areas are able to access the services they need, that people can access providers and allow them to feel heard and seen and cared for in a way that is mindful.” 

What’s next for HB 129?

The bill was favorably reported out of committee, which means it goes back to the House for a third reading. After the third reading, the bill will be presented to the entire House floor for a vote before heading to the Senate. 

Since this bill was filed on behalf of Kemp, there’s a strong chance it will pass.