By TESS VRBIN | Arkansas Advocate
A proposed increase of Arkansas’ asset ceiling for federal nutrition assistance passed the Senate on Thursday with bipartisan support.
Senate Bill 306 initially would have raised the resource limit to $12,500 for Arkansans to qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly called food stamps. The bill was amended to lower the proposal to $6,000 and passed the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee with no dissent Wednesday.
The asset limit is currently $2,750 for most families receiving SNAP benefits and $4,250 for families with a member who has a disability or is over 60 years old.
Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Searcy), the primary sponsor of Senate Bill 306, told both the committee and the full Senate that the current asset limit discourages poor Arkansans from saving enough money to become financially stable because they might lose reliable access to food in the process. He lowered the initial proposal so it would have a stronger chance of passing but still believed $6,000 was not enough, he said.
Dismang also said increasing access to nutrition benefits is not “a left or right issue” but instead “a do-right issue.”
“Being conservative doesn’t mean that we should be devoid of compassion, and I think that’s exactly what this issue is,” Dismang told the committee, a statement he repeated to the Senate. “I think we should look for opportunities to help people lift themselves out of the situations that they’re in. We shouldn’t discourage the working poor from saving.”
Asset limits are not the same as income limits, according to current SNAP eligibility requirements published by the state Department of Human Services. Income limits depend on the number of people in a household, from $1,473 gross monthly income for a one-person household to $5,052 for eight people.
Resources that count toward the asset limit include cash on hand and in the bank, savings certificates and stocks and bonds, among other things.
Resources that do not count toward the asset limit include a home, life insurance and some vehicles, including those that help a family produce income. The rules exempt $4,650 of the value of a household’s vehicle for each employed person and each student attending school.
Dismang said the asset limit should not be lower than the vehicle value exemption.
“There’s not a one in this room that would feel safe for their children to drive a car that was valued under $5,000,” he told the Senate.
Arkansas currently adheres to the federal minimum asset limit for SNAP benefits, DHS Chief of Staff Mark White told the committee. SB 306 would allow the state to ask the U.S. Department of Agriculture for an exemption from the federal limit to raise the state limit.
So far, 34 states and the District of Columbia have received a federal exemption and eliminated SNAP asset limits.
Nevada eliminated its asset limit in 2009 and did not see a resulting influx of SNAP enrollees, said Brian Burton, who spent 11 years as CEO of Three Square Food Bank, the largest food bank in Nevada. Burton became CEO of the Arkansas Food Bank in October 2022.
SNAP provides 12 meals for every meal provided by the Arkansas Food Bank, which serves more than 200,000 people, Burton said while speaking for Senate Bill 306 in Wednesday’s committee meeting.
Raising the asset limit should help not only the working poor but also “vulnerable seniors” and people who have experienced unexpected financial hardships, Burton said.
“I know many of you love the faith-based charities and nonprofits that feed and serve people and make your communities more humane and more livable,” he told the committee. “They’re going to really appreciate you lifting the asset limit because it’s going to ease a little bit of the overextended client loads that they’re having to serve right now.”
Food insecurity is one of the foremost health issues facing children in Arkansas, Anna Strong told the committee on Wednesday.
Strong is the executive director of the Arkansas chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. She said pediatricians have seen how families that cross the existing SNAP asset limit subsequently struggle to feed their children.
“Some practices have even established emergency shelf-stable food pantries in their clinics to help families who don’t have food to put on their tables that evening,” she said.
Strong and Burton were the only people to speak for the bill before the committee, and no one spoke against it.
Adult SNAP recipients in Arkansas must meet some work requirement unless they are over 60 years of age or qualify for an exemption, like having a disability, raising children or going to school.
Some senators who “were hesitant about” Senate Bill 306 were not aware of the work requirement before Dismang told them, he said.
“Some say, ‘I’ll do one better: you’ve got to register to work in order to receive food stamps,’ [but] it’s already here,” Dismang said on the Senate floor.
Sen. Tyler Dees (R-Siloam Springs) asked Dismang if increasing the SNAP asset limit would “draw more into this program and create a dependency on welfare of any nature.”
Dismang said that would not happen.
“Common sense will tell you that it does the exact opposite,” he said. “If we’re not allowing people to have nest eggs and savings at home to try to divert from a crisis that may or may not occur, we’re creating essentially a weight that’s held on their head to keep them underneath the water and in poverty.”
Not every family receiving SNAP aid might be saving money meticulously, Dismang said, but the state should “reward those few that do.” He also said every Republican that has campaigned as a “common-sense conservative” should support the bill.
Nine Republicans, including Dees, voted against the bill. Five Republicans voted present: Joshua Bryant of Rogers, Ronald Caldwell of Wynne, Alan Clark of Lonsdale, Steve Crowell of Magnolia and John Payton of Wilburn.
The bill passed the Senate with 21 votes for it: 15 Republicans and all six Democrats.
Senate Bill 306 will go before the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee after next week’s Spring Break, with Rep. DeAnn Vaught (R-Horatio) as the primary House sponsor.
Sen. Clarke Tucker and House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough, both Little Rock Democrats, are the bill’s co-sponsors.
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