Founding father and president John Adams famously said, "Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."
Unfortunately, during their deliberations over SB306 this past week, some members of the Arkansas Senate did their best to alter facts and evidence nonetheless.
Senator Jonathan Dismang (R-Searcy) is the lead sponsor of this legislation that would expand access to food stamps in the program by raising the asset limit, in perpetuity, and allowing those with significant resources to gain eligibility.
After an impassioned speech filled with numerous false claims, the bill narrowly passed the Senate and now heads to the House Public Health Committee.
As much as I would love to move on and ignore the SB306 fallacies, members of the Arkansas House–and the public–deserve to know the truth before they potentially send it to Governor Sarah Sanders’s desk.
(She strongly opposes the bill, by the way.)
So let’s set the record straight.
Sen. Dismang has repeatedly discussed how unfair the current asset test is and how it’s locked in place without any updates (see below for why this is untrue). In committee, there was much discussion about how the current law does not provide the state “flexibility.”
But Sen. Dismang and several of his colleagues actually voted in favor of the current asset limit just a few years ago.
If the current asset test is so unfair, why did Sen. Dismang and many others vote to cement it in state law just a few years ago?
*Note: Senators. Jane English, Blake Johnson, Scott Flippo, Dave Wallace, Missy Irvin, and Bart Hester all previously supported the current asset limit in 2017 but changed course and voted in favor of Dismang’s newest expansion bill.
After initially claiming his proposal was neither a “left or right” issue but a “do-right” issue, Sen. Dismang ultimately claimed that his welfare expansion was a matter of “compassionate conservatism.” (In committee, he referred to the matter as “commonsense conservatism.”)
But quite simply, conservatism has always been–and will always be–about promoting self-sufficiency and independence, not about expanding welfare, especially for those with significant means, which is what SB306 would do.
Welfare for those with significant means is also not “compassionate.” Indeed, redirecting limited welfare dollars to people with significant means is the opposite of compassion. It redirects dollars from truly needy Arkansans to those who can afford to pay for their groceries.
It also traps people in dependency, which robs Arkansans of dignity, purpose, and self-worth.
I think Sen. Dismang has a very different definition of what conservatism means from myself and most Arkansans, as evidenced by his legislative track record on welfare issues. In fact, we’ve heard he and his fellow welfare expanders claim before that increased dependency was indeed a conservative notion.
In 2013, for example, he was a leading proponent of expanding Medicaid coverage to able-bodied adults through Obamacare, which has added hundreds of thousands of people to the welfare rolls.
This was infamously billed as a “conservative” welfare expansion, which is how Dismang and some of his counterparts were able to convince the first Republican legislature in modern state history to go along with the Democrat Governor Mike Beebe’s plan.
(Spoiler alert: it wasn’t conservative, and exactly zero conservative states have replicated it.)
Sen. Dismang has also filed legislation this session to expand “free” lunch welfare at significant-yet-unknown cost to taxpayers.
Having observed his 15-year legislative career from the beginning, I do find it believable that Sen. Dismang genuinely thinks welfare helps people. I just happen to have a very different view, one that is far more in line with traditional conservatism. It's a view that supports promoting self-sufficiency as much as possible and making sure the safety net is strong for those–and only those–who truly need it.
Sen. Dismang has repeatedly misquoted the current asset limit for food stamps, including in the Senate Public Health Committee. According to him, the asset limit is "only" $2,250.
In reality, for many enrollees, the asset limit is $2,750.
For households with elderly individuals or individuals with disabilities, the asset limit is $4,250.
A simple Google search uncovered these numbers:
As I’ll explain below, this limit has been updated multiple times in recent years and will continue to be adjusted in conjunction with inflation.
Put simply, the asset limit is actually already significantly higher than what Sen. Dismang has led his colleagues to believe, and federal law already provides a mechanism for it to continue to be updated as necessary.
According to Sen. Dismang, Arkansas’s current nation-leading asset limit is unfair because it hasn’t been adjusted since the legislature (wisely) codified it in 2017—which, as noted, he voted for.
But the claim that the asset limit has not been updated is plainly and provably untrue. This could be a simple misunderstanding or it could be a deliberate oversight, because explaining how this actually works undercuts a significant argument in favor of SB306.
The federal food stamp asset limit has been adjusted up twice in recent years—including by more than 20 percent within the last six months—due to rising inflation:
The program’s asset limits are in fact adjusted annually:
And because of Dismang’s misbelief that the limit has never been updated, he also included language in SB306 that perpetually expands welfare by raising the asset limit going forward.
Dismang tried to tell one of his colleagues on the Senate floor that that's not what the bill does:
The plain reading of the bill text clearly contradicts Dismang's claim, saying the limit will be automatically adjusted:
But this also begs the question: Why does Arkansas need to raise the asset limit (well above federal minimums) and perpetually expand the program forever if these adjustments are already happening?
What is SB306 really about?
Dismang also misled his colleagues when he said any future changes to the asset limit would require legislative approval. As you can see based on the plain text of the bill above, it will be automatically adjusted in perpetuity.
Sen. Dismang said on the Senate floor that "all" he was asking for was an increase in the asset limit to $6,000:
Of course, as noted, that's not all Sen. Dismang is asking for. His bill actually expands food stamps in perpetuity, not to a capped amount of $6,000. (See above)
But here’s what’s really interesting: while $6,000 is currently being claimed as the magically “fair” number, Sen. Dismang has actually proposed 4 different asset limits in the last 2 years.
At best, this seems like a “moving target.” At worst, it looks like a guessing game. And why should we now believe that $6,000 is suddenly the magic number?
Well, I guess we shouldn’t, since the bill would actually expand the asset limit in perpetuity.
Sen. Dismang told his colleagues and the public that his proposal will help people leave poverty. In fact, when asked by Senator Tyler Dees if the bill would expand enrollment in the program or increase dependency, Sen. Dismang said “I think it does the exact opposite” and that “commonsense” would agree.
These statements represent a fundamental misunderstanding of how the food stamp program is structured.
First, current income eligibility for food stamps actually extends well above the poverty level. Don’t take my word for it: you can read it here from the federal government (USDA).
Second, and more importantly, by lengthening the time people can stay on food stamps (by expanding the asset limit), this legislation would–by definition–extend the time people can stay on the program, not shorten it.
Sen. Dismang almost inadvertently admitted this. In response to a question on the floor about how people leave the program, he said “getting above that asset limit.”
By raising the asset limit, the state would be pushing ineligibility out further into the future. Again, this contradicts the senator’s claim that his bill would reduce dependency.
This is simply common sense. Right now, eligibility ends at $2,750 in cash assets (assuming other eligibility criteria are still met). So what happens when you more than double that amount to $6,000? People can stay on the program longer. And they will. Period.
It would also create new dependency by making more Arkansans eligible for food stamps than qualify today. Period.
So, people will stay on the program longer and more people will qualify. According to Sen. Dismang, this is somehow reducing dependency. But common sense will tell you that it does the exact opposite.
Sen. Dismang has consistently said, even dating back to last session, that his intention is to encourage people on food stamps to save money and that current policy somehow prevents or punishes them for doing so.
But by the senator’s own admission, he doesn’t actually think SB306 will change this:
He made a very similar admission in committee during his comments on the bill.
Additionally, under current Arkansas policy, Arkansans on food stamps are not “punished” for saving money. In fact, they are explicitly permitted to save nearly $3,000 in liquid assets (up to the current asset limit). This does not even count non-liquid assets like homes, cars, and other items that do not qualify towards the asset limit.
Once individuals hit the asset cap, they can choose between giving up their welfare benefits and saving more, or keeping their benefits and stopping saving.
But SB306 would effectively eliminate this choice, at least up to a point: Arkansans would be able to save up to $6,000 and keep their welfare benefits.
In other words, instead of paying for their own groceries, Arkansans who have $6,000 in cash could keep getting their food stamps, letting taxpayers instead continue to foot the bill while they stockpile cash–even though $6,000 is enough to buy nearly a year and a half of groceries for a single mom (USDA).
Even more incredibly, the average food stamp household only had $384 in liquid/countable assets before the pandemic (and $738 during the pandemic). To state the obvious, these totals are nowhere near the asset limit of $2,750.
So if food stamp enrollees are already failing to save more than a few hundred dollars, how exactly would raising the cap–and extending their stay in the program–change their behavior?
Sen. Dismang is very wrong in his description of how the program currently works. Enrollees are allowed to save money and, if their savings go over the asset limit, they are freed from government dependency. That's a reward, not a punishment.
This is one of the more shocking claims I’ve heard in support of this proposal. I heard it from the lobbyists pushing for the bill last session as well.
Their argument is simply this: Arkansans en masse already have cash that exceeds the food stamp limit, but because of the strong rules we have in place, they are hiding the cash “under their mattresses” so they can keep their welfare benefits.
This is called welfare fraud.
Shockingly, rather than pursuing legislation that might help crack down on this fraud, Sen. Dismang believes we should instead legalize it by raising the asset limit–effectively, rewarding people who have been scamming the welfare system.
I find this absurd and also highly inconsistent, despite Sen. Dismang’s plea with his colleagues for “consistency.”
So to summarize: They can’t save and they won’t save, but they are saving.
Therefore, we must expand welfare, we are told.
Color me unconvinced.
During the floor debate on SB306, Sen. Dismang said:
It’s odd to hear this line of reasoning, particularly because Sen. Dismang has assured us all that his bill does not increase dependency and it “does the exact opposite.” So why would there be any increased costs at all?
But frankly, I found Sen. Dismang’s disdain for federal taxpayers to be rather stunning. He seemed to suggest that his colleagues had no moral authority to oppose a perpetual expansion of welfare because the state accepted one-time federal stimulus funding through ARPA. I find this to be rather unserious, but also inaccurate.
Yes, food stamp benefits are financed by federal taxpayers, but every single Arkansas taxpayer is also a federal taxpayer. Further, his claim is simply inaccurate because Arkansas taxpayers directly finance a significant portion of the administrative costs of food stamps.
Don’t take my word for it, you can read it here from federal law:
State taxpayers currently pay hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to administer the food stamp program.
Of course, Arkansans have no idea how much these administrative costs might increase under SB306 because it has no fiscal impact statement attached to it.
But we do know that there will be increased enrollment and longer dependency for those enrolled now, which will increase federal and state spending.
And of course, we should all be concerned about federal spending.
In response to a question on the Senate floor, Sen. Dismang claimed that virtually all food stamp enrollees are subject to work requirements:
When asked again about who the work requirement applies to, Dismang definitively stated "It's the whole program." This is definitively untrue.
Many individuals in the food stamp program are elderly or have severe disabilities. None of them are subject to any sort of work requirement, nor should they be.
In fact, of the hundreds of thousands of individuals currently in the Arkansas food stamp program, the majority fall outside of the work registrant category, which is the population that can even potentially be required to work (State of Arkansas).
Even among those who are potentially subject to the work requirement, large portions of them are exempt through various loopholes.
And because of the lingering “Public Health Emergency” from the pandemic, not a single food stamp recipient in the state of Arkansas is currently subject to any work or work search requirement (USDA).
Nonetheless, Sen. Dismang called the subject of adding a work requirement an “ongoing joke” in the chamber, from members who were skeptical about SB306, because “that already exists.”
Well, as it turns out, it doesn’t exist for the vast majority of enrollees, and personally, I don’t find it to be any laughing matter.
Unfortunately, it seems like Sen. Dismang is willing to say just about anything to get this bill rammed through the legislature. While he is entitled to his own opinions and strongly-held beliefs about how expanding food stamps might help Arkansans, he is not entitled to his own facts.
At the end of the day, his proposal is simply the wrong direction for our great state which has been saddled with crippling dependency for generations. Thankfully, Governor Sarah Sanders has made it clear that she strongly opposes this wrongheaded welfare expansion.
Hopefully the Arkansas House will agree.