Senate panel advances bill reducing time an able-bodied, unemployed adult may receive cash assistance

Time frame for assistance cut from 24 to 12 months

The Arkansas State Capitol Building is shown in this file photo.
The Arkansas State Capitol Building is shown in this file photo.

An Arkansas Senate committee on Wednesday advanced a bill aimed at reducing the time an able-bodied adult, who is unemployed, may receive cash assistance through the state Division of Workforce Services from 24 months to 12 months.

In a voice vote with Sen. Fred Love, D-Little Rock, dissenting, the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee sent House Bill 1401 by Rep. Rebecca Burkes, R-Lowell, to the Senate.

The bill would apply to the state's Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which was created to "help families stay together by empowering family leaders with job skills, resources and assistance," according to the state Division of Workforce Services' website.

Under current law, the state Division of Workforce Services is generally barred from providing financial assistance to a family that includes an adult who has received financial assistance for more than 24 months.

HB1401 would cut that time frame to 12 months.

Sen. Clint Penzo, R-Springdale, who is the Senate sponsor of HB1401, told the Senate committee that the bill only applies to work-eligible, able-bodied adults.

"During those 12 months, the participant should be able to ready themselves to find work and then join the workforce," he said.

"The safeguard here is that under current law and this bill the Division of Workforce Services has the discretion to issue a waiver and extend the 12-month time limit for up to as many as 60 months if needed," he said.

For example, if an individual is in a training program that takes longer than 12 months, the division can extend the benefit to allow the individual to finish the program, Penzo said.

"The ultimate goal is to help Arkansans leave the trap of government dependency, cycle off the program and thus bolster the workforce as more adults move from welfare to work," he said.

The bill would still allow state officials to "exempt or temporarily defer" a person from the time limit.

Deferrals or exemptions may apply to a person, "who cooperated and participated in activities, but was unable to obtain employment because of circumstances and barriers beyond his or her control."

State law includes several other instances under which exemptions or deferrals to the time limit could apply, including for "child-only cases," an "individual unable to obtain employment because of the lack of support services necessary to overcome barriers to employment," and a parent or a caregiver who is older than 60.

Individuals participating in "education and training activities" who have reached the end of their 12-month limit also may be eligible to continue receiving assistance.

Penzo said the bill came to him from Nic Horton, representing Opportunity Arkansas Action, and he discussed the bill at length with Division of Workforce Services Director Charisse Childers before the bill was filed, and "they are OK with the bill."

Love asked for more information about Opportunity Arkansas Action.

Horton said Opportunity Arkansas Action is a nonprofit group, and "our mission is to solve generational problems and simplify government, so we work on a variety of policy issues that kind of fall under that umbrella, including welfare reform, education reform, foster care."

He said federal law allows states to limit cash assistance under the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program to between one year and five years, and "this bill simply goes down to one year."

Bruno Showers of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families said, "I hear a lot about our labor force issues, but I think programs like this actually help our labor force participation and our employment rates in the long run."

Both the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and the Arkansas Work Pays program already have work requirements built into the program with certain exemptions and certain resource and income limits, he said.

"I appreciate that we are not eliminating the program entirely, and there is still kind of guardrails in place to keep people who meet certain exemptions on the program," Showers said.

But, he said, "I feel giving families a longer off-ramp is more likely to help them not just get a job, but get like a good-paying job that will help them to start a career and move up the ladder, and that's why we oppose reducing the length of this program from 24 to 12 months."

Afterward, state Department of Commerce Chief of Staff Jim Hudson said there were about 434 work-eligible families on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program as of Wednesday.

The total monthly average cash assistance paid to these families is about $88,500, making the average payment $204 per recipient, he said.

Asked whether the Department of Commerce has a position on HB1401, Hudson replied, "We do not."

Information for this article was contributed by Will Langhorne of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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