Arkansas hunger safety net needs repair

 More than 150,000 Arkansans are estimated to be newly food insecure since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and state policies are making it harder for families to get the nutritional support they need during this time of crisis.

Food Insecurity in Arkansas, a new report by Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families (AACF), calls for the state to eliminate policies that make it more difficult to be hungry here than in most other states. For example, Arkansas is one of only 10 states with an “asset limit” that prevents families with even modest savings accounts from becoming eligible for SNAP – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Regardless of household size, Arkansas’s families are automatically ineligible if they have more than $2,250 in the bank ($3,500 if the household includes someone with a disability or someone 60 or older). Most states have no such asset limit, and many others have raised the limit so families can save more for emergencies.

While Arkansas lifted many of the barriers to SNAP enrollment when the pandemic started, the asset limit remains in place because it would take legislation to change it.

“As a relatively poor state, we shouldn’t be adding to the burden of food insecurity for Arkansans in the middle of a pandemic,” said Laura Kellams, AACF’s Northwest Arkansas Director and the author of the report. “These state policies are unnecessary and put us at a disadvantage, now and during the economic recovery to come.”

Among other recommendations, the report calls for Arkansas to reverse a 2017 law that barred the state from participating in “Broad-Based Categorial Eligibility” options. The state law requires that the SNAP asset limit be kept at the lowest level allowed under federal law. AACF also recommends removing compliance with the Child Support Enforcement program as a condition of SNAP eligibility, which takes away food benefits from children and parents – even if they’re owed child support. The latter requirement has been temporarily lifted during the health emergency.

The publication also outlines changes to SNAP since the pandemic began, including a state-reported 27 percent increase in enrollment since February. The Arkansas Department of Human Services reports that about 318,000 people were enrolled in SNAP before the pandemic began, compared to about 404,000 at the end of June. Meanwhile, Feeding America estimates that the food insecurity rate increased by about 39 percent during the same time period, or that about 150,000 more Arkansans now lack consistent access to enough food for everyone in the family to live active, healthy lives.

Download a copy of the report on the AACF website.

AACF will host a virtual community forum on the recommendations on Thursday from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. It will take place via Zoom (details below) and Facebook Live (facebook.com/ARAdvocates).

Speakers at the forum include Karama Neal, President of Southern Bancorp Community Partners; Tomiko Townley, Advocacy Director at Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance; Melisa Laelan, Founder and Executive Director of Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese; Erin Hogue, Director, Community Operations and Northwest Arkansas Giving at Walmart; Melvin Clayton, Race Equity Director for Advocacy at AACF; and Laura Kellams, Northwest Arkansas Director at AACF.