At the food pantry in Cherry Valley in rural Northeast Arkansas, clients start lining up hours before its 10am opening. The pantry is open every Tuesday for two hours, unlike other pantries that open once or twice a month.
“In this area, they just can’t go a whole month without us,” said director Joan Ball.
Ball and other advocates for the poor worry that business will pick up at pantries and soup kitchens if food stamp work requirements drafted as part of the 2018 Farm Bill end up becoming law. Ball said the last two weeks of the month are already the busiest as people who’ve already spent their food stamps seek additional ways to feed themselves or their families.
The first draft of the Farm Bill, an omnibus legislation package that is renewed every five years or so, passed out of the House Agriculture Committee on April 18. U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford (R-1st District) was among the 26 legislators who voted in favor of the bill. Twenty were opposed.
The current Farm Bill proposal includes work requirements for food stamp recipients deemed capable of holding at least a part-time job. Those without a job can attend job training, enroll in school or volunteer.
In Arkansas, where about one in seven residents receives food stamps, there are already some work requirements for recipients ages 18 to 49 who don’t qualify for an exemption, such as having a child at home.
Under the proposed Farm Bill, the work requirement age range would be expanded to 59, and there would be fewer exemptions. Individuals without a disability and parents with children above the age of six would be asked to work at least twenty hours a week by fiscal year 2021 in order to keep their benefits. The minimum work week would rise to 25 hours by 2025.
Work requirement opponents said there are few low-wage jobs that offer a steady and predictable twenty hours a week. Retail and fast food positions are especially known for schedules that can vary widely from week to week.
“If your manager cuts your hours one month that means you’re not only receiving a smaller paycheck that month but you also have potentially become ineligible for SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] assistance, on top of that,” said Eleanor Wheeler with the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.
But work requirements are popular across political parties, according to a recent poll from the conservative Foundation for Government Accountability. The poll found that eight out of 10 Republicans favor such laws, and so do seven out of 10 Democrats.
“People really understand that the welfare system that we have is in need of significant changes, and that we’re about a generation out of date when it comes to updating some of these laws,” said Kristina Rasmussen, the FGA’s vice president for federal affairs.
She noted that with an improved economy and more job openings, it makes more sense than ever to start moving people into work. Even some of the clients of the Cherry Valley Food Pantry said people should have to work in order to receive food stamps, if they are not disabled. Others said they are not able to access food stamps, despite low and fixed incomes.
Jearline Ford, a care coordinator for senior citizens, said she’s concerned about the practical barriers that keep people from working. Most of her clients would be exempt due to age, but she’s concerned that younger people in rural Arkansas don’t have reliable transportation or gas money to get to a job or even a job interview.
“When I tell you it’s bad, it’s bad,” she said.
According to Joan Ball, the Cherry Valley Food Pantry is better off than many pantries, since it received grants and gifts to buy and stock two walk-in freezers with meat and is able to offer more fruits and vegetables than normal. But she said food stocks often run low, and they sometimes have enough spaghetti but no spaghetti sauce, making it hard for clients to prepare a proper meal.
“Beans and potatoes, that’s about it. No meat,” said one 76-year-old client when asked how she’d be eating without the food pantry’s help.
The House of Representatives is expected to take up the $867 billion Farm Bill, which includes the strengthened work requirements for food stamps, in May.
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