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Unfruitful labor

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When 6-year-olds in Arkansas blow out their birthday candles, they might wish for a new toy or a family pet. Thanks to proposed changes to SNAP benefits, their parents might soon wish for a miracle just to keep food on the table.

Congress is considering new work requirements that would make it even harder for parents to continue qualifying for SNAP (or "food stamps"). Under the proposal, after their kids turn 6, parents who work low-wage, seasonal or part-time jobs could lose the benefit that helps pay for groceries. These work requirements would hurt many families who already have jobs.

Here's the gist of the new rule: If you are an adult raising a child older than 6, you now must prove that you're working at least 20 hours a week or in a training program (unless disabled or elderly). You must report that you have met that requirement every month. There is no rollover.

Parents who go through a short period where work isn't available will be out of luck even if they work 20 hours a week on average. One in four workers on SNAP who meet the work requirements overall throughout the year could still lose eligibility.

For a part-time working parent making ends meet with SNAP, a minor schedule change at the end of the month could disqualify them at a time when their paycheck is smallest. And if you don't meet the requirements one month, you could lose benefits for the entire year unless the circumstances of your job change. A second missed requirement could make you ineligible for up to three years.

The proposal essentially demands that low-wage parents get what many can only dream of — predictable work schedules. If you want people in Arkansas to have stable work hours, you should tell their employers.

About half of early-career employees get a week or less notice for shift schedules. It is common for retailers to give just a day or two of notice for a schedule change. Most early-career adults who work hourly jobs have hours that fluctuate 50 percent on average from month to month.

Industries like retail, service and food preparation are notorious for unpredictable scheduling, and they employ many low-wage Arkansans. Hospitality and retail have made up more than a third of non-farm employment growth in Arkansas since 2010.

So yes, many of these workers would love to have more hours every week. They would love to be able to count on a consistent paycheck. But requiring workers to have better, more consistent hours doesn't make those jobs magically appear.

Threatening to take away grocery assistance won't make parents be suddenly able to control their work schedules or remove other barriers to work.

What is keeping Arkansas families from working? It starts with a lack of affordable childcare, thanks to underfunded pre-K programs and the fact that, nationally, 94 percent of low-wage workers have zero access to paid family leave. Low educational attainment and transportation issues also play a huge role, and certain areas of Arkansas still have higher than average unemployment because of a lack of good jobs. Work requirements themselves can even be a barrier to work. Parents often miss days of work to comply with in-person visits that are tied to work requirements in certain programs.

This plan's "job training" alternatives are an underfunded, untested, virtually meaningless bureaucratic pretense for these harsh rules. The truth is that these changes save money by taking food away from low-income kids and families who need it. The changes would cut or reduce benefits to over a million low-income households nationwide, including those with children.

SNAP is one of the most important public health programs in the nation. It helps children and adults avoid costly medical care and improves the their children's chances to graduate from high school. Consistent and reliable access to food takes some of the pressure off families and helps parents show up to work and keep their jobs. We should be making it easier, not harder, for every family to have access to healthy, nutritious food. There are 130,000 school-aged children in Arkansas who currently rely on SNAP. If their parents don't have the right kind of job, work-requirements could threaten their access to food immediately or upon their next birthday.

This isn't the only problem with the new SNAP rules being considered, but it is one that directly hurts children in our state. These rules are part of the Farm Bill, a version of which passed the House Agriculture Committee on April 18. The Senate will work on its version in the coming months.

Eleanor Wheeler is a senior policy analyst for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.

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