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The 30,000 Arkansans who could lose food stamps this year will have more options to receive training and find jobs through a program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Tuesday.

The SNAP to Skills program will help states organize programs to ultimately move adults off the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. People who would otherwise lose access to government food stamps could continue to use them under the training programs as they search for employment and receive training, Vilsack said.

"Arkansas does a pretty good job of using the resources they have," he said. "They are a small enough state that I think we could really make a difference down there."

In January, the state began enforcing regulations requiring most able-bodied SNAP recipients to work or attend job training to remain eligible for benefits.

Vilsack said the USDA chose Arkansas partly because of its mix of rural and urban populations. Arkansas was one of 10 states chosen for the program.

"It's a good model for us to look at states with similar circumstances," he said.

Amy Webb, spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Human Services, said the state will use the USDA assistance to expand education and training efforts in 13 of Arkansas' 75 counties.

These 13 counties, mostly rural, refer 10,000 to 12,000 people to jobs and training programs per year.

"We understand that there is often a need for time for people who are struggling," Webb said. "We want to see them have the skills they need to get back to work."

The USDA SNAP to Skills program will dispatch experts to help Arkansas develop plans for the statewide program, look at staffing capacity and identify partner agencies in communities, Webb said.

"When we make this program statewide, we want it to be successful," she said. "It's really something that will improve the state's workforce down the road."

The USDA project will end in September 2017.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, enacted in 1996, requires able-bodied food stamp recipients to work an average of 80 hours a month or attend a job training or workfare program. "Able-bodied" means adults between 18 and 50 years old who are physically and mentally fit for employment and have no children or dependents.

If they do not work, volunteer or attend education or job training courses, their benefits are cut off after three months.

The USDA waived those rules for almost every state in 2008 when unemployment was high and there weren't enough jobs. Now that unemployment rates are falling, the waivers aren't being renewed.

In December 2015, Arkansas' unemployment rate ranged from 3.0 percent in Washington County in the northwest corner of the state to 7.5 percent in Phillips County on the Mississippi border.

In 21 states, including Arkansas, waivers expired in early 2016. The state began enforcing the requirements Jan. 1.

According to an Associated Press analysis, this means that more than 30,000 people in Arkansas and nearly 1.1 million people nationally could lose access to food stamps.

Critics of the law cutting off food stamps have said there are obstacles for some food stamp recipients seeking jobs, including certain disabilities, criminal records and a lack of a driver's license.

Business on 03/02/2016

Print Headline: USDA chooses state for job-training plan tied to food stamps

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