“Just because we’re conservative doesn’t mean that we can’t be compassionate,” Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Beebe) pleaded to his colleagues before the vote Thursday.
The bipartisan bill that Dismang presented, Senate Bill 306, would not change the income requirements for individuals to qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as SNAP. It would raise the asset limit in Arkansas from the federal minimum of $2,250 to $6,000, a value Dismang said he chose to be more palatable. A select number of states have done without a limit altogether, he said.
“This is not a left or right issue,” Dismang said. “This is a do-right issue.”
Ultimately, the Senate approved the bill 21-9 with five senators voting present.
With SNAP, countable assets vary from state to state. In Arkansas, the current $2,250 limit is a combination of cash savings, select vehicles and stock and bonds, among other things. With these restrictions, individuals who use the program can’t save much money to better their lives without the assistance. Saving for a new car or first and last month’s rent deposit to get out of a bad housing situation is impossible.
“I would argue that the way the current structure is, we are actually creating the incentive for people to go into debt,” Dismang argued in a Senate committee meeting on Wednesday.
Bringing in the education overhaul that is the LEARNS bill, Dismang said that that bill was passed because legislators wanted to give poor people the opportunity to lift themselves out of their current situation. The $7,000 amount offered would cover a portion of private school tuition, but not all. If families on SNAP wanted to save up the money to send their kids to the private school, they wouldn’t stay eligible for assistance.
“We have a state law that says we mandate financial literacy in schools,” Dismang said. “What is the foundation of financial literacy? Saving. But we’re saying if you’re poor, you shouldn’t be able to save and maintain your food stamps for your family. I think it’s absurd.”
SNAP is for the working poor, Dismang said. The change the bill proposes wouldn’t require Arkansas funds because it is a federal program.
In an interview after the bill passed, Christie Jordan, the CEO of the Food Bank of Northeast Arkansas, said that the details of federal nutrition programs are very complex. With all the rules and regulations, misinformation can spread.
“Misinformation leads to decisions that are not always in the best interest of families facing hunger,” Jordan said. “Being compassionate and trying something and giving an idea the benefit of the doubt would be enough change.”
She said that if families are expected to work themselves to independence, they need room to save money. The goal of the programs are to help people, not trap them in a “cycle of poverty and dependence,” Jordan said.
Sen. Tyler Dees (R-Siloam Springs) — who voted against the bill — brought up a token critique of the bill, which was how people would react to increased access for the assistance. Would the program be flooded with dependent people?
Dismang said that actually the opposite was expected to happen. The inability to save and relieve themselves of a bad situation is like a weight that keeps them dependent and in poverty for longer, he said.
The bill now heads to the House.
UPDATE: Gov. Sarah Sanders opposed the bill Thursday, according to a report from The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
“We oppose expanding welfare and trapping more people in lifetime dependency that is paid for by the labor of hardworking taxpayers,” Spokesperson Alexa Henning said.