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AR Bill Could Nix Discretionary Exemptions for SNAP

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More than 355,000 Arkansas residents rely on SNAP benefits to purchase food. (Adobe Stock)
More than 355,000 Arkansas residents rely on SNAP benefits to purchase food. (Adobe Stock)
 By Nadia Ramlagan - Producer, Contact
March 10, 2021

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - A bill that would impose even stricter work requirements for Arkansans receiving SNAP benefits has advanced to the state Senate after passing in the House last week.

House Bill 1512 would remove discretionary - also called "no-good-cause" exemptions - for able-bodied adults between ages 18 and 49 with no legal dependents.

Tomiko Townley, director of advocacy at Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, explained that some people who need help fall through the cracks because they don't meet specific exemptions. In these instances, case workers can use discretionary exemptions to qualify an individual for SNAP.

Townley said the life circumstances that might apply here are numerous, including "being pregnant or participating in a drug-rehabilitation program, or being homeless, or mentally or physically unable to work, caring for an older adult family member."

Bill sponsor Rep. Kendon Underwood, R-Cave Springs, and supporters say exemptions make it easier for people to not look for work. But it's estimated that the SNAP or food-stamp program kept 82,000 Arkansans out of poverty between 2013 and 2017, according to the Center for Budget Policy and Priorities.

Townley said the state's work requirements garnered national attention a few years ago when Arkansas became the first state in the nation to implement a work or community-engagement rule for Medicaid enrollees. And in 2016, lawmakers imposed strict time limits on a person's eligibility for food assistance.

"If you're not currently working 80 hours a month, or volunteering or participating in an employment and training program offered by the state," she said, "then you're only allowed to receive three months of SNAP benefits within a three-year time period, unless you prove that you have met the requirement or you've met an exemption."

Instead of cutting food access to more people, Townley said she believes Arkansans need more flexibility to navigate tough times, especially in the public-health crisis and recession caused by the coronavirus.

"We know that transportation barriers are a huge issue in our state," she said. "There's a number of reasons that somebody might not meet the work requirement, and also might not meet an exemption."

More than 560,000 Arkansans are food insecure, according to the Arkansas Hunger Alliance, meaning they aren't always able to get enough food for regular meals.

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