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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Simple case of meanness

by John Brummett | September 2, 2021 at 2:56 a.m.

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, who pretty much delivered the presidency to Joe Biden, called out Arkansas and four other mean states Monday.

Clyburn, the third-ranking member of the House Democratic leadership, revived a foundering Biden campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination with a stirring endorsement in the South Carolina primary that turned the tide.

Now, as chairman of a select committee on coronavirus relief, Clyburn went public Monday on the matter of five states--Arkansas, Alabama, Wyoming and the Dakotas--hardly using their virus-relief funds designated for helping virus-affected people with overdue rent.

Virginia has distributed over half its money. In Arkansas, where poor people tend to irk the policymakers, we'd handed out by early July just 2.5 percent of our allocation.

There is no data to suggest Arkansas tenants are better off than Virginia tenants. Some data would suggest otherwise.

By "mean," which I use advisedly, I refer to arch-conservative states of a self-styled rugged independence where the ruling classes seem to think people needing public assistance have only themselves to blame. Arkansas has long been in the Mean Top 10 considering its historically stingy Medicaid system, even with its uncommonly large Medicaid population.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson accepted Medicaid expansion, which was good, but then tried to impose a work-reporting requirement on recipients that got tossed in federal court.

Those are mere examples, just as our lagging the nation in laws establishing tenant rights and now lagging the nation on tenant assistance with federal money are examples.

Clyburn had said the state-to-state disparity indicated the problem may not be process complexity but the will of states. Asked about that at his regularly weekly covid briefing Tuesday, Hutchinson got his back up.

The governor countered that Clyburn hadn't bothered to mention that Arkansas, unlike many states, kept its economy open during the pandemic.

He was saying we didn't owe our tenants as much because we kept sending them to work during a potentially lethal virus outbreak. He said that as if it was a good thing. He said it as if none of the working renters got sick and missed work.

At any rate, Clyburn mentioned sending lagging states' millions to other states. But that would seem to be what Arkansas and the other mean states want.

Hutchinson would reject that premise. He displayed a chart detailing rental assistance distributed for 72 counties, all but Pulaski, Washington and Benton, which are handling the program independently. The charts showed that Arkansas has most of its allocation unspent and thousands of cases--8,000 out of 13,000 filed--classified as pending, not denied, and in need of further information or documentation.

A television reporter mentioned to the governor that the missing further information might be required letters from landlords affirming their tenants' applications. According to some tenants as related by the reporter, landlords won't cooperate and say they want nothing to do with the program.

Some tenants have wondered why the state can't just send them the money--or send checks in their behalf directly to the landlord--even if the landlord won't cooperate in the application.

Hutchinson acknowledged that the state needed to look at the abnormality of missing information on such a high percentage of applications.

A spokesman for the state Human Services Department, which oversees the federal rental assistance disbursement, said the state required the letter from the landlord because the money goes to the landlord, not the tenant. That seems appropriate, as does the landlord's role confirming the amount of past-due rent.

But the spokesman said that, because of complaints, the department already had been looking at making the process easier. One idea was to shorten the application forms that often were being filled out not by the actual landlords, but property managers who were objecting to the level of personal information--Social Security numbers, for example--required of them as mere agents of others.

The spokesman said the department was calling landlords on behalf of tenant applications lacking landlord paperwork and otherwise encouraging the real-estate community to help pick up the pace.

Maybe Clyburn was right, then, that the issue was simply a matter of a state's will.

In Arkansas' case, it might have been nothing more than the reflection of an embedded culture of assuming that poor people are up to something, that they're trying to rip off federal money while luxuriating in welfare penthouses.

In this case, the issue has been sending money owed landlords straight to their landlords. It sounds simple and has been simple in some states not called Arkansas.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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