The state estimates about 12,000 unemployed Arkansas residents will lose their food assistance benefits on April 1 because of reinstated work requirements.
Benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will now be limited to three months for able-bodied, childless adults from ages 18 to 49 if they aren’t employed, in school or participating in a volunteer or job training program.
Tomiko Townley, SNAP and older adult outreach manager with Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, says those with jobs have to work at least 20 hours a week in order to qualify for SNAP, but she says that’s often easier said than done.
“Their employer isn’t able to offer them more hours,” she points out. “Or they have other responsibilities – nieces, nephews, they’re sharing responsibility for, or there could be a plethora of reasons, including mental and physical challenges that limit their ability to work.”
The limits were actually put into place in 1996, but states with high unemployment got waivers, Arkansas included. And while some Arkansas counties still qualify for the waiver, the state chose not to ask for it.
Townley says her agency is spreading the word to food pantries that they may see an increase in people needing help.
Ed Bolen, a senior policy analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, says the lost benefits can hit those who need it the most.
“Because the rule is you have to be working more than 20 hours a week to keep your benefits,” he explains. “So, if you have 3 shifts, 18 hours of work a week on average, if you can’t get a couple of extra hours, you actually lose food assistance right at the time you’re trying to work to make ends meet.”
Bolen says states should provide job training assistance, but most don’t because it’s too expensive.
Townley says only a handful of counties in Arkansas offer job training for people who need SNAP benefits.
“We know that nationally this population on average are the poorest of the poor,” she states. “They are not the highest educated population, they are probably high school or equivalent or lower, which means that job skills are also fairly low.”
According to the latest census figures, Arkansas is tied with Mississippi as the most food insecure state in the nation with 19.2 percent of residents having an insufficient amount of food sometime in the last 12 months.