by Max Brantley
Few states have cut their assistance to the very poor more than Arkansas has. In 2014, there were seven families on TANF for every 100 families with children in poverty in Arkansas, down from 40 out of every 100 poor families in 1995, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. (In Minnesota, by contrast, that fell from 89 out of 100 poor families who received benefits in 1995 to 41 out of 100 in 2014.) The number of welfare recipients in Arkansas dropped to just 9,901 in September of 2015, from more than 63,000 in 1995. And a single-parent family of three receives just $204 a month from the state of Arkansas, one of the lowest cash benefits in the nation. Arkansas hasn’t quite gotten rid of its safety net entirely, but it’s gone as far toward that end as any place in modern America. And it may go further yet.Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson has declined to seek a federal waiver that would allow food stamps to continue to reach chronically unemployed adults. The article focuses on a homeless woman the author met in the Stewpot, the downtown soup kitchen.
Governor Asa Hutchinson, Republican, could have asked for a waiver to the SNAP requirement that adults like Stacy work after three months, but he decided not to, he told me, in a phone call. The state’s unemployment rate, currently at 5.7 percent, had decreased enough that he believed there were enough work opportunities in the state, he said. If someone still can’t find a job, they can always volunteer, he said.
“They still have the opportunity to contribute to a local food bank or some other local nonprofit,” he said. “That contribution brings dignity, it is helping the community, it is giving back, and that seems a good balance to me.”
So why doesn’t someone like Stacy just do that and avoid losing her food stamps? For one, finding a place to volunteer or work can be very hard for those who don’t have phones, mailing addresses, or work clothes. Many do not have the education or wherewithal to find a volunteer position. And for those who want to get more education to find work, the job-training opportunities in Arkansas are insufficient in helping people get the skills they need to find permanent work, said Tomiko Townley, the SNAP and Older Adult Outreach Manager at the Arkansas Hunger Alliance.
But poor families don’t receive much assistance from the state of Arkansas. Under TEA, the state’s version of TANF, families can only receive two years of government assistance in a lifetime, though the national limit is five years. Those receiving TEA must work or volunteer 35 hours a week, although the federal requirements are only 20 hours a week.The tough approach doesn't come with a helping hand, in the view of Rich Huddleston, director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.
The state focused on reducing the welfare caseloads by disqualifying people, rather than on helping people get a job, he said. For many people, the hoops to jump through to get on TEA are so confusing that they don’t apply at all. By law, the state is supposed to assess recipients when they apply for TEA and refer them to a service that can help them find a job, go back to school, or get vocational training. But in many cases, Huddleston said, people get referred to services that don’t exist in their area of the state.The article includes the real-life story of the travails of a woman with children and disabled husband in attempting to get the meager assistance the state offers while searching fruitlessly for work and also being required to do 35 hours a week of volunteer toil to qualify for her assistance.
Welfare reform had big goals of moving people to self-sufficiency by training them to work. But it did little to create job opportunities or the types of programs that help people stay in jobs once they get them. Instead, they’re on their own.Our governor thinks this is "balance" — even a sweet deal.