At the end of March, the state estimates that roughly 12,000 unemployed Arkansans will lose their food-stamp benefits because of the imposition of work requirements on adults in the program.
On Jan. 1, the state began enforcing requirements that limit food-assistance benefits to three months for able-bodied, childless adults ages 18-49, if they are not employed, in school, or participating in a job-training or volunteer program. The state is now sending out 12,000 notices to the first round of people who are expected to lose food-stamp benefits April 1.
The three-month limit previously had been waived in Arkansas and several other states as the country struggled through a recession, and unemployment skyrocketed. Now, the federal government is reimposing the requirements.
Arkansas is one of 23 states where the limits are in place for the first time since the recession, according to a report released by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
The center estimates that between 500,000 and 1 million Americans enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, will have their food-stamp benefits cut this year.
In Arkansas, state agencies and nonprofits, however, are developing options to help recipients meet the new requirements and continue to receive benefits.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the SNAP to Skills program, a two-year program in which federal resources will assist states in building job-training efforts aimed at moving adults off food stamps.
Organizations like the Arkansas Foodbank also offer volunteer opportunities and coordinate with the Department of Human Services in helping volunteers meet food-stamp requirements.
"Our pantries and local agencies are there to help provide them with food they may need," said Rhonda Sanders, chief executive officer of the Arkansas Foodbank.
"We're also working on allowing folks who need job training and job opportunities to hook up with some of our pantries and actually work there and learn skills of how to manage inventory and customer service. Things like that we feel would be a good opportunity for them to enhance job skills," she added.
Though Arkansas' employment rate has recovered to pre-recession levels, many areas in the state are still lagging. Seven counties along the Mississippi River report an average 8 percent unemployment rate -- roughly 2.3 percent above the state average, according to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
These counties, along with 51 others, would still be eligible for exemption from the three-month cap, according to data provided by the state Department of Human Services. To receive exemptions, the counties must receive waivers, something Gov. Asa Hutchinson has chosen not to seek to renew.
"It's personal accountability. If you're receiving these SNAP benefits you can continue to receive those SNAP benefits, but you have to work if you're between 18 and 49 -- that's a conservative philosophy that the governor believes," Hutchinson spokesman J.R. Davis said.
"We want to encourage people to work, and that's what this is about. They're able-bodied and don't have dependents, so there is an opportunity for them to go out there and work. And for those who aren't working, those benefits will be limited," state Department of Human Services spokesman Amy Webb said.
"Able-bodied" includes those who are not pregnant and are not mentally or physically unfit.
Officials also pointed to an improving economy in which many food-stamp recipients are already relinquishing their food stamps. Data show that more than 288,577 households received the benefits in 2015 -- a 3 percent decrease since 2012.
"We believe this recent drop to be reflective of the improving economy across the state, and, therefore, should continue," Webb said.
Exact numbers on how many people will be affected by the food-stamp changes are unknown. The 12,000 notices were sent to people who did not appear to meet work requirements and who were believed to meet the "able-bodied" definition, Webb said.
Arkansas Foodbank officials also said it was too early to say how many food-stamp recipients might take advantage of the opportunities they provide because of the food-stamp changes.
"It's too early in the process to know how it's going to work out. Hopefully as we go through this and have some time under our belts, we'll have a better answer," said the food bank's Chief Program Officer Jayne Ann Kita.
Metro on 03/07/2016
Print Headline: 12,000 Arkansans to get food-stamp shutoff notices