We sent this memo to candidates, urging them to keep kids top of mind

The mission of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families is to ensure that all children and their families have the resources and opportunities to lead healthy and productive lives and to realize their full potential. As you are considering what your priorities will be if elected to the state legislature, we hope that you will keep policies impacting the lives of Arkansas children top of mind. We have identified a series of policies that research has proven will improve the well-being of Arkansas’s kids that we hope you will consider supporting both during the campaign and if elected. This year has been a difficult one for children and families. The economic fallout from the pandemic left many families struggling to meet basic needs, like putting food on the table. And disparities seen in everything from policing to COVID-19 infections have laid bare the painful impacts of systemic racism on people of color and our country. But the Arkansas Legislature has the power to pass laws that will ensure our state’s children and families can not only be resilient but thrive.

An education system that meets the needs of all children
Arkansas has made progress to improve its education since the Supreme Court’s 2002 Lake View Decision. However, major gaps still remain and have worsened during the pandemic, among racial and socioeconomic groups, students with special education needs, and English language learners. There are proven solutions to address these equity gaps, but they will require a continued commitment to adequately and equitably fund public education. Arkansas will also have to assess how equity gaps have worsened during the pandemic and develop a clear strategy for overcoming these gaps. There are some clear policies the state should implement to achieve this.

Firstly, the state should ensure all children have access to high quality early childhood education. We must stop the school to prison pipeline by adopting school disciplinary practices that ban/limit expulsions and out-of-school suspensions and use more restorative justice techniques. Increased funding for out-of-school programs is needed to ensure quality learning opportunities after school and during the summertime. All students should have access to good nutritional foods throughout the day, including school breakfast, school lunch, backpack take home meals, and summer meals. The community schools model that provides the wrap-around services needed for children to succeed should be expanded. And Arkansas needs to improve access to high quality special education opportunities for students with disabilities. If equity gaps are not addressed immediately and over the long-term, current and future generations Arkansas students will face major competitive disadvantages in their efforts to succeed in school and in life.

Health Care
Reauthorize Arkansas’s Medicaid expansion waiver
Arkansas was the first state to expand its Medicaid program through a Section 1115 Demonstration after the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was implemented. The expansion, known as the “Private Option,” allowed for over 220,000 uninsured Arkansans to access health insurance. Before the original waiver ended in 2016, the General Assembly submitted a reauthorization for the program. On December 31, 2021, that extension expires. During the upcoming General Assembly, the Arkansas Legislature should renew the State’s Medicaid expansion waiver to ensure that the 270,000 Arkansans currently enrolled in the program do not have their health insurance coverage terminated in 2021.

Protect funding for Medicaid
More than 400,000 children in Arkansas are insured by Medicaid and CHIP, through ARKids First. Arkansas should maintain its current Medicaid budget and work to extend coverage under its Medicaid expansion program to more of Arkansas’s children and adults who desperately need it. Medicaid has been essential to Arkansas’s rural hospitals staying open and enabling more Arkansans to access health care services. When more adults have health coverage, it allows them to take better care of their children, while maintaining health coverage for Arkansas’s children enables them to be healthier and reduces health risks as they grow older. Individuals with health coverage will more often catch serious health issues earlier, which reduces the amount of treatment that they need as a result.

Provide 1-year postpartum Medicaid coverage for mother and baby
Medicaid pays for the delivery of two out of three babies born in Arkansas. Some mothers and babies lose their Medicaid coverage two months after the baby is born. At that point, the mother must reapply for Medicaid. But many complications of childbirth occur up to one year after the baby is born. The state has a very high rate of infant and maternal deaths following childbirth. Arkansas Medicaid should stop the two-month termination and cover both the mother and the baby the full first year of the baby’s life, up to one year after childbirth.

Continuous eligibility for ARKids A
Most states (47) allow a 12-month Medicaid renewal period for children, instead of rechecking eligibility and causing kids to lose coverage during the year. Currently Arkansas allows continuous 12-month eligibility for children enrolled in ARKids B but does not allow those enrolled in ARKids A the same opportunity. That means the lowest-income families in the state are more likely to lose their Medicaid coverage during the year. We should change that and allow continuous 12-month eligibility for children on ARKids A.

Presumptive Eligibility
State approval of presumptive eligibility, a temporary application for Medicaid, would allow pregnant women and children in Arkansas get quicker Medicaid coverage and to begin receiving services immediately without having to wait for the full Medicaid application to be processed.

Food Insecurity
SNAP asset limit
Arkansas has one of the nation’s highest food insecurity rates, and it’s grown much worse during the pandemic. But our state-level SNAP policies make it more difficult for families to put food on the table. To qualify for SNAP assistance in Arkansas, family assets must fall below $2,250, or $3,250 if the household includes someone older than 60 or a person with a disability. This is intended to limit families with financial means from participating in programs like SNAP, but the actual effect prevents struggling families from building the financial resilience they need to overcome economic hardship. Lower asset limits discourage low-income households from setting aside even modest savings for emergencies. Most states have no asset limit for SNAP, and most of those that have limits set them at higher rates than Arkansas.

Disentangling SNAP from child support enforcement
In 2019, Act 1043 linked SNAP eligibility to participation with child support enforcement. This act disqualifies parents from using SNAP — even those who are owed money by noncustodial parents — if they don’t accept a court order for child support. In addition to causing many Arkansas families to become food insecure, this act is very costly to the Arkansas Office of Child Support Enforcement. The office projects that installing a new computer system will cost more than $1.4 million, and their caseload is projected to increase by 11,600 cases, which requires the office to increase its staff by around 40 people.

Family Economic Well-Being
A state Earned Income Tax Credit
The Earned Income Tax Credit is a targeted way to provide tax relief to working families with children. The federal version of the EITC pulls millions of people out of poverty every year, and the extra money it puts in the pockets of working parents has been associated with better health, educational, and career outcomes for their kids. Because of this, 29 states currently have a state version of the EITC that piggybacks off the federal version. If Arkansas became one of those states, we could help alleviate child poverty and support kids to reach their full personal and economic potential.

Safe and affordable housing
The connection between quality housing and health is well established. Environmental factors like mold, pests, and noise all have the potential to negatively impact child health, especially. That is why it is so critical for Arkansas to become the 50th and last state to enact what is known as an “implied warranty of habitability.” That just means that a certain, bare-minimum threshold of livability – like housing being free from rats and mold – should be a basic right for Arkansans who rent.

Juvenile Justice
Eliminating juvenile fees and fines
In Arkansas, youth and their families can be charged fees for counsel, probation supervision, diversion and treatment services, miscellaneous court costs and judicial services, and more. These fees can be a barrier to successful completion of probation requirements, triggering an additional set of consequences. Further, Black youth and families are disproportionately impacted by both the imposition and collection of these fines and fees and by the COVID-19 pandemic. Black youth in Arkansas are arrested, committed, and detained at rates of 2.9, 3.5, and 6.8 times greater than their White peers, respectively. Juvenile fees and fines are a regressive and racially discriminatory tax on low-income communities and communities of color.

Research has shown that juvenile fees and fines undermine youth rehabilitation, can increase recidivism, and often generate little or no net revenue. As a result, many states and cities have begun to end these practices. We can help ensure better outcomes for Arkansas youth and families in our juvenile justice system, and our communities as a whole, by: [1] suspending the assessment and collection of fees, fines, and negative consequences for nonpayment; [2] writing off all outstanding juvenile fees and fines; and [3] dismissing all warrants and cases where the only remaining issue is outstanding debt on juvenile fees and fines. While an Arkansas-specific analysis is still underway, regional research has indicated that juvenile fees and fines typically generate insignificant revenue to jurisdictions after accounting for collection costs. Further research is needed to evaluate long-term court funding alternatives, in an effort to eliminate any court incentives to impose juvenile fees and fines. In the interim, we must take immediate action to address the harm our system-involved youth and families face by eliminating juvenile fees and fines.

Civil Rights
Hate Crime Legislation
Arkansas is one of three states that does not have a hate crime law. In August of this year, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, State Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and a group of bipartisan state legislators unveiled draft legislation to be considered during the 2021 General Assembly. The proposal would increase penalties by no more than 20% for crimes where an offender targets a victim because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, religion, homelessness or military service. The bill has the support of several companies, including Walmart and Tyson Foods, and the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce. Enacting this legislation would be a huge step in making Arkansas a safe and inclusive space for all individuals.

Tax and Budget
Revenue adequacy
Public revenue is everyone’s issue. Every Arkansan who wants effective, well-administered government services that help our economy thrive – like infrastructure, public safety, and education – needs to be concerned whether the government has adequate and sustainable revenue. But Arkansas has pursued a series of tax cuts over recent years that have reduced annual revenues by hundreds of millions of dollars. We hope the next legislature will find ways to raise revenue so we can have the kind of public services that promote economic growth that’s shared by everyone.

A tax system that works for everyday Arkansans
The lowest-income Arkansans have always paid a higher portion of their income toward state and local taxes than the wealthiest Arkansans. But the tax cuts for high-income earners and corporations in recent years, combined with the recent passage of the “internet sales tax,” has made this problem even worse. Governments require a mix of tax revenues to ensure financial stability, but Arkansas generates far too much revenue from sales taxes that hit the poor the hardest. At the same time, we do things like tax capital gains income, which almost exclusively goes to the wealthiest, at a lower rate than income

Arkansas is only thriving if our children are thriving. We hope you will consider how each policy you may support or vote on will impact Arkansas’s kids.