The Arkansas Legislature’s Continued Attack on the Poor

By Rich Huddleston, AACF Executive Director

The Arkansas legislature continued its attack on the poor today. A subcommittee of the Joint Budget Committee passed out special language placing unnecessary restrictions on the use of the financial assistance received by poor families under the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program. As part of an amendment to House Bill 1017, the special language adopted today would limit use of TANF financial assistance to the following types of expenditures: food; clothing; housing; utilities; child care; and other incidentals such as transportation, medicine/medicine supplies, or equipment not covered by Medicaid, or a health benefit plan. Any other necessary expenditures facing a family, such as a child’s costs for a school field trip, would not be allowed under the bill.

In perhaps a more troubling development, families receiving TANF financial assistance would no longer be allowed to do cash withdrawals using a TANF electronic benefit card (EBT). Such a restriction basically means they would not be able to draw down cash to pay for any necessities. They would only be able to use the card to directly pay for expenditures on the categories outlined above. Such a restriction could, in some cases, threaten the well-being of families when cash is needed in an emergency.

Other than the sole reason of being punitive, it’s not clear what problem this bill is trying to address. State agency officials testifying in support of the bill today could provide no data or examples of misusing TANF financial assistance or benefit cards. It’s also highly unlikely that a family receiving TANF assistance would have any cash to waste anyway. Arkansas’s cash assistance benefit level for a family of three is the third lowest in the country at only $204 per month, paying just 12% of the poverty line.

The bill runs counter to just-released federal program instructions from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services about any restrictions on access to cash. They recommend as few restrictions as possible on families’ ability to withdraw their TANF funds. It included language that states should:

minimize or eliminate restrictions on the frequency or number of cash withdrawals and the amount that a recipient may withdraw at any one time. Acknowledging that TANF recipients will have varying needs to access their benefits throughout the month, it is important that states provide flexibility to recipients to withdraw their funds in a manner that meets their needs. For example, a family may need access to much or all of its monthly cash assistance at one time to pay for rent or a car repair. A daily limit on cash assistance via ATM withdrawals would prevent a needy TANF family from having adequate access to its cash assistance and impose an additional burden by requiring multiple trips to an ATM to access assistance.” 

These program instructions are designed to implement Congressional language to protect adequate access to cash for TANF families. Moreover, Congress has already put restrictions on using TANF benefits (and a penalty). Arkansas should instead focus on implementing what Congress has already done, not adding additional, unnecessary restrictions.

The adoption of today’s amendment, which will likely be considered sometime in the next 24 hours, is just another episode in the Arkansas legislature’s ongoing attack on the poor, especially our poorest families receiving TANF. During the 2015 session, the legislature passed legislation requiring drug testing for adults receiving TANF benefits. Bills such as these are insulting and demeaning to Arkansas’s poorest families who are just trying to meet their basic needs and take care of their children. They serve no real purpose, budgetary or otherwise.