Arkansas is a proud state. It’s a unique place with unique people and unique history. But generational problems, largely created by state government, are holding our great state back from its true potential.
Generations of poverty and dependency have dug Arkansas into a deep hole:
1 in 3 Arkansans are dependent on Medicaid—and rising1
Just 38 percent of Arkansas kids are reading ready2
Violent crime is nearly 70 percent higher than the national average3
There are thousands of kids trapped in a broken foster care system, nearly half of whom will not reunite with their families4
And welfare is like a trap for too many Arkansans. Work is too expensive and inaccessible for many. Families are ripped apart by drugs and crime, flooding the prison system and the foster care program, all while sending kids down the same path to poverty.
The only way out of this hole are bold, conservative solutions. This is not a time for cautious moderation. Instead, we need responsible, incremental change toward more opportunity for the great people of our great state.
The Roadmap to Opportunity is exactly that.
It is a remedy that proposes transformational yet simple changes that will supercharge Arkansas’ workforce and workers by reducing the cost of work and making it more accessible for all.
It shows policymakers how we can reform the welfare system so that it no longer serves as a trap that makes it too easy to turn down work for many.It delivers tangible, homegrown ideas for fixing the foster care system and protecting our most precious resource—our children.
It lights a path for policymakers who want to truly put parents back in charge of their children’s education and finally put students first.
And it delivers big ideas for solving the Arkansas crime crisis that threatens the very fabric of our culture and communities.
Overall, it sets a course towards protecting, preserving, and expanding opportunity for all. For us and for the next generations.
Arkansas needs — and deserves — customized, homegrown solutions for real change. And they are finally here.
Arkansas’s workforce needs a major shot in the arm. While the state has made some strides in recent years by ramping up a focus on vocational training and computer science — and slowly chipping away at the state income tax — a lot of work still needs to be done.
Surrounded by two states without income taxes, Arkansas is constantly competing for good-paying jobs — or at least it should be. Sadly, Arkansas is losing the race.
Every single day, more than 160 Arkansans leave the state, nearly half of whom move to a neighboring state with a lower state income tax (or no income tax at all).1 Nearly three times as many Americans move to Tennessee as to Arkansas each year.2
Not only does Tennessee not have a state income tax, but working-class Tennesseans are able to get an occupational license to work nearly two-thirds more quickly than if they lived in Arkansas. 3-4
A variety of factors are at play, but the bottom line is simple: Overregulation and artificial barriers to work that have mounted over time are causing Arkansas’ economy to lag behind its potential — and behind its neighbors.
There is no greater punishment on Arkansas workers than the income tax. Every two weeks, when Arkansans get paid, they are forced to fork over too-large of a share of their earnings to state government.
Imagine if, instead, policymakers gave every Arkansas worker a pay raise by eliminating this work penalty.
To accelerate the growth of Arkansas’ workforce and help Arkansas families increase their take-home pay, policymakers should address two key areas of concern: 1. The cost of work and 2. Barriers to entry into the workforce.
In this sluggish economy, policymakers should be singularly-focused on growing paychecks for all Arkansans. All efforts should be anchored on two guiding principles: 1. Hard work should be rewarded, not punished and 2. Work should be accessible for all Arkansans.
To compete in the 21st century, Arkansas needs more skilled workers. Unfortunately, despite their best intentions, Arkansas schools are largely failing to adequately prepare the next generation for the new economy. Many of the problems inherent in the education system are the result of outdated rules and restrictions that prioritize dollars and districts over families and Arkansas’s future.
The education system in Arkansas today prioritizes systems over students. Parents are left with little choice about where their kids go to school, as fewer than one-tenth of one percent of education spending is dedicated to school choice.5 Instead, pivotal education decisions are delegated to government bureaucrats and an archaic system, which boxes students into whichever school district they live in, regardless of whether or not it is the best fit for them.
Unfortunately, the next generation is reaping the consequences of this government command-and-control policy. Arkansas ranks 45th in the nation for college readiness, 43rd in math, and 37th in reading.6 Just 38 percent of Arkansas kids are ready in reading which is a fundamental building block of work-readiness.7
We can do better. We must do better.
Even if government is well-intentioned, it is simply not possible for it to know and understand the unique needs of every Arkansas child. That is why parents, not ZIP codes, should determine where their kids go to school.
Arkansas’s failing education system should be a wake-up call to policymakers that change is urgently needed. Their focus should be on the following guiding principles: 1. Kids deserve opportunity and must be placed ahead of special interests, and 2. Parents should be allowed to choose the path that best fits the needs of their children.
Arkansas is in the midst of a massive crime crisis, much of which has been driven by the state’s broken parole system. Over the last decade, violent crime has increased by nearly 40 percent —more than in any neighboring state.8 And it is nearly 70 percent higher in Arkansas than the national average.9
This crime wave threatens the very foundations of opportunity for all Arkansans. Indeed, life is the very foundation of opportunity.
But the crime crisis also threatens the state’s economy: corporations and manufacturers will simply choose to make their homes in neighboring states, where crime levels are a fraction of what they are in Arkansas. Over time, the cost of doing business will skyrocket for existing small businesses which will face higher insurance, security, and hiring costs. And it will become even more difficult to recruit workers into major hubs of the state’s economy (major cities) and from other states.
Truly, Arkansas’s crime crisis threatens not just the people of Arkansas but our very way of life.
Arkansas’s parole system lacks transparency and accountability. The system is built upon a foundation of no transparency, no accountability and on perverse incentives that allow career criminals to skirt their sentences.
Compared with most surrounding states, Arkansas is extremely generous in allowing “good time” (good behavior by an inmate) to qualify prisoners for earlier parole.10 Similarly, Arkansas allows a significant portion of a prison sentence to be reduced for other “earned time" programs — even for serious felonies.11 These systems of “good time” and “earned time” desperately need to be reformed.
Meanwhile, the antiquated structure of the Arkansas Parole Board invites opportunities for abuse. Unlike in neighboring states such as Louisiana, Arkansas does not publish votes of its parole board members when they decide to move an inmate from prison back onto the streets.12 State parole board members are appointed to seven-year terms with no term limits, which further insulates them from accountability — and Arkansas communities often pay the price.13
To restore public safety, Arkansas policymakers should require that public policy 1. Put victims first and 2. Make law enforcement officers a priority.
The crime crisis in Arkansas is a direct result of a failure of accountability. Decisions must be guided by public safety and transparency.
To change course, policymakers should be guided by an unwavering commitment to put victims, families, and our brave law enforcement officers – not violent criminals – first.
Arkansas policymakers should do everything within their power to keep Arkansas kids safe. They should also work to ensure foster care is truly a last resort, not simply a default option, because the outcomes for kids who enter foster care can be devastating: The lack of a stable family unit has been proven time and time again to lead to more crime, more poverty, and more dependency — the opposite of opportunity.
To provide a pathway to opportunity for the next generation, Arkansas policymakers should be fully committed to keeping families together as much as possible and reducing the flow of Arkansas kids into the system.
Unfortunately, in Arkansas, the foster care system has become a trap for kids that is increasingly difficult to emerge from. Kids are shuffled from foster home to foster home. Nearly one of every three Arkansas children cycled into the foster care system will be placed in four or more foster care settings, a higher rate than all but one neighboring state.14
For those for whom adoption is the final outcome, the results are just as bleak: The average Arkansas child will wait years before being adopted, with 13 percent being stuck in the system for more than five years before adoption.15
Those who are not as lucky may find themselves forced to sleep on the floor at the Department of Human Services offices. The state’s foster care system is so overloaded that kids have, on multiple occasions, been forced to sleep in government office buildings.16
Arkansas policymakers should resolve that this never happen again. Arkansas children deserve much, much better.
Together, Arkansas must work to 1. Preserve family integrity as much as possible and 2. Increase the number of quality foster families.
Arkansas’s foster care system is at a breaking point, providing little hope for far too many kids. Putting a child into foster care and separating them from their family is inherently traumatic. Arkansas’s approach to foster care policy must be modernized to reflect this reality.
Kids who are in danger absolutely should be protected with no exceptions. But policymakers should update current state policies to ensure family preservation is also prioritized and families are not torn apart simply due to poverty.
Caseworkers and judges should be required to consider family preservation more closely and forced to answer the question, “Does removing a child from their home cause more trauma than leaving them?” Removing them will definitely introduce some level of trauma and set a child down a very difficult path, away from opportunity and toward poverty. The question then becomes, “Must they absolutely be removed?” Foster care should be seen as a true last resort.
Arkansas deserves a strong safety net that is sustainable for those who truly need it. Unfortunately, that is far from the reality today. The safety net is strained beyond recognition by working-age adults across the state’s largest welfare programs.
These adults are robbed of opportunity, trapped in failing systems, while Arkansas employers are desperate for workers. Truly, this is a recipe for economic disaster that threatens the state’s ability to grow and create opportunity for all.
Today, 1 in 3 Arkansans are on Medicaid, hundreds of thousands of whom are working-age, able-bodied adults.17 Data from the Department of Human Services has shown that nearly half of these able-bodied adults do not work at all.17 So, while Arkansas employers remain desperate for workers — and the state’s safety net is strained to unprecedented levels — able-bodied adults remain on the sidelines, consuming limited resources that should instead be going to support seniors, individuals with disabilities, and Arkansas kids in poverty.
Equally concerning is the number of individuals on welfare who are ineligible. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Arkansas has chosen to accept extra federal Medicaid funding in exchange for keeping individuals on the program even if they become ineligible —known as “Medicaid handcuffs.” As a result, Arkansas’s Medicaid rolls have increased by more than 200,000 — or more than 20 percent — since the start of the pandemic.18
Even before COVID, more than $1 of every $3 spent on Medicaid in Arkansas was improper, going to waste, fraud, and abuse.19 Today, Arkansas’ welfare system has become an example of fraud by design: the federal government is paying the state government to keep ineligible Arkansans on welfare indefinitely.
To truly unleash opportunity for the next generation, Arkansas policymakers must address the state’s generational welfare crisis by following these two guiding principles: 1. Those who can work should work, and 2. Those who truly need help should get it.
To turn the tide on what is quickly becoming a dependency crisis in the state of Arkansas, state policymakers should pursue reforms that restore the safety net as a true last resort for Arkansans who have nowhere else to turn. This means promoting work over dependency, reforming broken systems to ensure welfare enrollees are encouraged to prioritize work, and rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse.
The biggest impediment to passing savings onto taxpayers — and reducing the cost of work through income tax reform— is a bloated bureaucracy. This sucks up everything in its path. Left unchecked, it will consume more resources and extend more deeply into the lives of Arkansans. And instead of letting Arkansans’ money work for them and for their local small businesses, it will instead be absorbed into the belly of “the beast,” where government will instead decide how it should be best spent.
Unchecked government growth, particularly during COVID-19, has bloated the size of state government beyond recognition.
Today, for every 100,000 residents, Arkansas has more than 2,500 state employees — an alarmingly higher rate than any neighboring state.20 This vastly outpaces the size of state governments in our region.
By contrast, Tennessee manages its state government with fewer than 1,400 state employees per 100,000 residents — and without a state income tax.21 In Texas, also with no state income tax, there are fewer than 1,500 state employees per 100,000 residents.22 By all standards, Arkansas’ bureaucracy has grown far too large.
With the bloated state of Arkansas’s government, the following key guiding principles are needed: 1. Government should not grow faster than Arkansans’ paychecks, and 2. Arkansans know how to spend their money better than state government does.
Reform is needed to constrain the size of state government so that state government lives within its means, just like Arkansans must do every single day.
Shrinking government is never easy, but it is almost always necessary — especially if policymakers are serious about eliminating the state income tax, as they should be.
It was not always this way. In the mid-2010s, Arkansas implemented a temporary hiring freeze that eliminated nearly 1,500 state positions, saving taxpayers more than $40 million every single year.23