Tuesday, March 21, 2017

TOP STORY >> Agencies speak out over cuts in social programs

Leader staff writer

Congress will vote Thursday on repealing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — some know it as Obama-care — which could leave many Arkansans without health insurance. Proposed budget cuts will eliminate or endanger programs like Meals on Wheels, low-income energy assistance, food stamps and many more in a state that leads the country in seniors going hungry. (See food pantry story on right.)

In general, one in five Arkansans are struggling with hunger, while 28 percent of the state’s kids are food insecure — meaning they may or may not have an evening meal or breakfast, so the federal lunch program and after-school programs are paramount to their immediate- and long-term health.

SNAP, the latest term for the federal food stamp program, is administered by the federal Department of Agriculture.

All these programs are intertwined and work together, said Nancy Conley, Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance communication director.

The Natural State will be hit particularly hard, she said Tuesday.

“Arkansas is one of these because it has one of the highest poverty rates in the U.S.,” she said.

As many as 857,359 (the state’s total population is not quite 3 million) Arkansans were covered by Medicaid in 2016, according to HealthInsurance.org, and the number of uninsured was reduced by 57 percent between 2013 and 2015.

These same people often qualify for other programs.


Buster Lackey, Lonoke County Council on Aging inc. (LCCA) executive director, is distressed by proposed budget cuts in Washington.

“I’m very concerned about budget cut talks, even though I know it’s just the first round…It’s already hard for the state and local agencies to take care of the people in need. Our funding can’t go any lower.”

He referred to a comment by White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney: We can’t spend money on programs just because they sound good.

Mulvaney said he was talking about the Community Development Block Grant programs and not Meals on Wheels, but in reality many states use those funds to help with the senior program, Lackey said.

He continued, “I invite any and all local and state legislators to go with me on a lunch (Meals-on-Wheels) delivery run or sit down with seniors at lunch (at the Lonoke Senior Center). Then they would understand the depth of the problem.”

So far, none have, he said.

The LCCA feeds as many as 500 seniors each day, and in Lonoke County, he added, “There are more than 11,000 seniors….We’re trying to reach them all.”


House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) wants to cut food stamps as much as $23 billion.

Conley said, of “those receiving SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits in fiscal year 2016, 71 percent of SNAP participants are in families with children; 40 percent are in “working families.”

Arkansas is No. 1 in senior hunger and food insecurity in the nation, meaning one in four senior Arkansans are already struggling.

Brandi Johnston, director of development at Arkansas Rice Depot, said the Arkansas stats are depressing. More than 23 percent of Arkansas seniors — that’s about one in four — are dealing with hunger or food insecurity.

Some see churches as the answer to hunger, but Conley said, the statistics don’t back that up.

For example, “If you have 20 grocery bags and one is orange, that one represents contributions of a charitable food network. The other 19 are assistance from the USDA. Churches could never come close to meeting those demands” of the hungry across the nation, Conley said.

Arkansas is aware of its senior hunger program, but in the three years since the state has been named number one, little progress has been made.

To further complicate the senior poverty problem, said Tomiko Townley, manager of Central Arkansas Development Council’s (CADC) Snap and Older Adult Outreach. “Other programs are (possibly) on the chopping block.”

“The needle has hardly moved. The state budget is already squeezed and any cuts will hurt the populations in need,” she said.

Townley said, “We hear horror stories about what people are doing to make it.”

The nonprofit works in 12 Arkansas counties.

When economic times are good, the need for social services goes down, but when times are hard, these are sorely needed, she said. And people who qualify for SNAP probably qualify for other low-income services such as Arkansas Works (the state’s version of Obamacare), Medicaid and LIHEAP (Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program), Conley said.

Vets need help, too

Veterans, young and old alike, often need a variety of services to make it in the short run but sometimes in the long-term. (See story on p. 1A.)

Townley said, “Unfortunately we see lots of veterans. The stats on vets are hard to get and while they are supported, the VA (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs), it doesn’t help with utilities or food.”

That’s where CADC tries to help.

But veterans, as well as the working poor and seniors, are reluctant to take advantage of the programs in place.

“There’s a stigma to asking for help. These people often experience a feeling of failure, but we have to convince people, this program is for you. It will help you,” Townley said.


If people can’t put food on the table, they probably don’t have electricity, and, Townley said, the president’s budget completely eliminates LIHEAP, which is paid for through Community Services Block Grants.

LIHEAP falls under the CADC.

The program is divided into two parts: Regular, which helps with or pays for a gas, propane or electric bill one time; and crisis, which helps with or pays for a shut-off bill up to $500. Both programs can be used by a qualified participant one-time, said Mary Abshure, Lonoke County LIHEAP community participation supervisor.

Persons receiving aid from LIHEAP, which is available in 12 counties through CADC, are connected to other family development resources and government programs, which provide a link to long-term resources to help families become self-reliant over the years, according to the CADC.

Mary Abshure, Lonoke County LIHEAP community participation supervisor, said she knows this program is vital to county residents.

“Absolutely, we know it’s needed because of the numbers we help,” Abshure said.

In Lonoke County alone last year, 2,103 applications received a total of $327,000 in assistance. There were 1,627 who collectively received $217,000 in regular assistance and 476 who collectively received $110,000 for crisis assistance.

During that same period in 12 counties, LIHEAP approved $22,810 for both programs, at a cost of about $4,869,000.

So far this year, 920 LIHEAP applications have been processed, with the amount totaling $128,000.

The numbers who qualify for this program in Arkansas “are staggering,” said Townley, who is often involved on in-take and sign-up days.


Trump Care, AKA Trump’s version of healthcare, insists that all able-bodied people on Medicaid must get a job, Conley said, but sometimes people need a little help, like a vet just returning from Iraq, a new mother or a woman battling breast cancer.

“We look at all these programs separately but these are all interconnected, and they are an investment in our future,” Conley said about the people and children who benefit from the variety of programs that keep so many Arkansans from disappearing though the cracks.

Together, these programs can be life and death or life and health, Conley said.

Any cuts will also further stretch the state’s already lean budget, and Townley agrees.

“It will make the state’s job harder,” and, she said, “We’re already struggling with the limited resources we have. Restricting any money from the federal government will only make it worse.”

These monies are “often a bridge to help to someone get to the other side.

The stats show that it’s usually a temporary fix and it definitely lifts people out of poverty,” Townley said.