Proposed work requirement for federal housing assistance advances in Arkansas Senate
Opponents say the bill will create the same barriers as the state’s former Medicaid work requirement
Bruno Showers, senior policy analyst for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, speaks against House Bill 1196 before the Senate City, County and Local Affairs Committee on Feb. 16, 2023. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)
The full Arkansas Senate next week will consider a proposed law that would require able-bodied adults to work or volunteer part-time to receive federal housing assistance.
House Bill 1196 passed the Senate City, County and Local Affairs Committee with no dissent Thursday. Able-bodied adults between the ages 19 and 64 would have to work or volunteer 20 hours per week or be participating in a workforce training program to qualify for housing assistance under the proposed policy. People with disabilities, parents of children under 5 years old and participants in drug and alcohol treatment programs would be exempted.
The bill is “affirming what we all believe, that work is honorable,” said Sen. Ben Gilmore (R-Crossett), the bill’s Senate sponsor.
Bruno Showers, senior policy analyst for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, said studies since the 1990s have shown work requirements to receive public benefits do not reduce poverty or bolster the workforce.
“Within a span of five years, there’s no difference in employment or income between people subjected to work requirements and those who aren’t,” he said.
Conflict with federal law
Public housing benefits are administered by local agencies that receive federal funding and must follow U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) regulations. Housing authority directors previously told the Arkansas Advocate they do not believe the state has a place in the administration of housing assistance.
The bill would require housing authorities to seek HUD approval “to the extent necessary to carry out” the work requirement.
Rep. Kendon Underwood (R-Cave Springs), the bill’s primary sponsor, said on the House floor Feb. 6 that he did not speak to any Arkansas housing authority directors while drafting the bill. The bill passed the House that day with a party-line vote.
Opponents of the bill have said it conflicts with federal law, which already requires adult residents of public housing to work or volunteer for eight hours per month.
House Bill 1196 originally did not exempt parents of children older than 4 months, and Underwood and Gilmore said they raised the age to 5 years because children would be in school by then.
The bill does not provide assistance with childcare.
Medicaid work requirement efforts
Showers was the only witness against the bill Thursday, and no one spoke for it. His colleague Laura Kellams spoke against the bill before the equivalent House committee on Feb. 1.
Both said House Bill 1196 would create “red tape” as a barrier to housing for Arkansans who meet the work requirement or qualify for exemptions. The same thing happened when the Arkansas Department of Human Services enacted a Medicaid work requirement in 2018, they said.
“Because we were asking DHS to do more with less and didn’t invest anything into outreach or administrative functions, ultimately all that we did was illegally kick people off of the program without any improvement to their employment,” Showers said.
The former program, called Arkansas Works, exempted people who were over 50 years of age or had dependent children. Even so, roughly 18,000 Arkansans lost coverage.
Arkansas Works was designed to be easy to administer, Showers said, while House Bill 1196 does not provide any guidance for housing authorities to create screening processes to ensure compliance. This would set up the requirement to be “even worse” than Arkansas Works, Showers said.
A federal judge struck down the Medicaid work requirement in 2019 after the Southern Poverty Law Center filed lawsuits against it and a similar proposal in Kentucky. Arkansas proceeded to revamp its Medicaid expansion program, ARHOME, without a work requirement.
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders appointed Kristi Putnam, one of the strongest proponents of Kentucky’s proposed Medicaid work mandate, to lead DHS in January. Sanders and Putnam announced Wednesday that they will ask the federal government for a waiver to enact a new work requirement for ARHOME enrollees, with the goal of enacting it Jan. 1, 2024.
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