A new report says the number of food-insecure Arkansas children and adults is rising during the COVID-19 pandemic, more Arkansans are receiving federal nutrition benefits, and the state should make policy changes such as removing the asset limit for eligibility.
Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families made that argument in its new report, “Food Insecurity in Arkansas,” written by Laura Kellams, Northwest Arkansas director.
The report cites numbers from Feeding America that Arkansas’ child food insecurity rate has risen from 23.2%, the nation’s second highest, before the pandemic to an estimated 32.3% now. Feeding America projects Arkansas’ overall food insecure population will reach 22.5%, second only to Mississippi.
If the projections are correct, the number of food-insecure children has increased by 65,000, while the number of food-insecure Arkansans overall has increased by 150,000, the report said.
The number of Arkansans receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits rose 27% to 404,325 from March to the end of June. That month, SNAP provided $69 million to the state, an increase of $32 million from February, when 317,897 were enrolled. The federal government pays for the costs of the benefits, while the state splits the administrative costs.
The report says that 495,473 Arkansans, or 17% of the population, received $462 million in benefits at some point in fiscal year 2019. SNAP is the current version of the food stamp program. Forty-six percent of the state’s children, 227,179, received SNAP benefits at some point during the fiscal year.
The report recommends the state make several policy changes to strengthen its safety net. It notes that Arkansas is prohibited from taking advantage of “broad-based categorical eligibility” flexibilities allowed in SNAP because of the state’s Act 1095 of 2017. The state is one of 10 that do not take advantage of those flexibilities, which the report says limits families’ options and deprives the state of federal funding.
Regarding current rules and requirements, the report said, “Those policies never worked to lift hard-working families out of poverty, even during good economic times. And they certainly aren’t contributing to the type of economic recovery that Arkansans need in this crisis.”
The report calls for removing the state’s asset limit for SNAP eligibility. Arkansas is one of 10 states with the strictest allowed limit of $2,250 per family, or $3,500 if the household includes someone with a disability or an individual age 60 or older. Limited assets include money in bank accounts but not the recipient’s house, household and personal goods, certain vehicles and some other assets. It does not increase based on household size and has only increased $500 from 1977. If the limit were adjusted for inflation, it now would be about $7,225, the report said.
Among neighboring states, Missouri, Tennessee and Mississippi have the same asset limits as Arkansas. Texas’ limit is $5,000. Oklahoma and Louisiana are two of 35 states along with Washington, D.C. that have no limit.
In a virtual forum hosted by Kellams July 23, Karama Neal, president of Southern Bancorp Community Partners, a development finance organization, said increasing savings is a key element of improving economic mobility by allowing families to weather economic shocks and take advantage of opportunities. She said the limits discourage people from having bank accounts and make them vulnerable to predatory lenders.
The report also recommends the state take advantage of SNAP’s available time-limit flexibilities in areas with higher unemployment. It also should lift work reporting requirements in counties with unemployment rates that are 20% higher than the national average, as allowed by the program. The federal government has suspended the reporting requirement during the duration of the national emergency, but it will return when the emergency ends.
It also says the state should rescind a requirement that both custodial and noncustodial parents cooperate with the Office of Child Support Enforcement in order to continue receiving benefits. The requirement, passed by the Arkansas Legislature in 2019, is not in force during the pandemic. The report argues that some parents may be too afraid of their own and their children’s safety to cooperate.
It also recommends permanently adopting procedures that have been adopted during the pandemic, such as allowing telephonic signatures. The U.S. Department of Agriculture July 23 announced that Arkansas’ request to allow online food purchases through SNAP had been approved.
Two state senators contacted for this story said it’s unlikely these proposals will result in legislation.
Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, said, “It would be very difficult to see any of these proposals becoming law. The people of Arkansas are very generous, and we believe in personal responsibility. We are willing and ready to help those in need, but the line has to be drawn at those in true need.”
Sen. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, said he was “not optimistic” that any of the recommendations would become law. He said he managed to pass a bill that would remove the asset test for another federal program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, through the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee in 2011, but it failed on the floor. At the time, Democrats held a majority on the committee.
“Maybe the pandemic will have changed enough minds,” he said. “I know I plan to push for some of these changes, and I’m confident there are other lawmakers who’ll try or are willing to try too.”
The report was produced with funding from the Walmart Foundation. Erin Hogue, Walmart director of community operations & Northwest Arkansas giving, said during the virtual forum that her company is committed to providing access to healthy food.
The company donated more than 640 million pounds of food this past year to groups addressing food insecurity. Fifty-five percent of the donations were fruits, vegetables and meats, she said.