Able-bodied adults would lose their benefits if they are not working part-time, volunteering or participating in a job training program under the Housing Welfare Reform Act of 2023 filed by Rep. Kendon Underwood, R-District 90, of Cave Springs. The City, County and Local Affairs Committee advanced the work requirement to the full House.
The bill defines able-bodied adults as those aged 19 to 64 years old who don't have a disability or care for a child with a disability. The bill also exempts recipients of unemployment benefits who are in compliance with that program's work requirements and people in drug or alcohol rehabilitation.
Rep. Richard McGrew, R-District 22, of Hot Springs, told the committee he supported the bill. He was part of the voice vote that recommended it to the full House.
"Taxpayer money pays for their rent," he said. "I'm in favor of someone paying their bills if they're physically able to."
McGrew noted he was the largest Section 8 landlord in Garland County at one time. In October he sold the Higdon Ferry Apartments to a multifamily real estate syndicate in Missouri for $7 million, according to property records.
He told the committee some of his tenants had legitimate reasons for not working. Some asked for "cash work" to hide income from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Section 8 tenants pay rent equal to 30% of their adjusted gross incomes.
Attorney Kendall Lewellen, housing subject area manager for the Center for Arkansas Legal Services, told McGrew Section 8 is a different program from public housing and wouldn't be affected by the bill. The city of Hot Springs no longer has public housing, as the local housing authority converted all of its 365 units to the Section 8 program in 2018.
Citing how federal courts invalidated the state's Medicaid work requirement, Lewellen said the public housing work requirement conflicts with federal law and is likely to be challenged in court. She said housing authorities that implement it risk losing their charters.
Laura Kellams, the northwest Arkansas director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, noted how the Medicaid work requirement the state implemented in 2018 led to many people losing their benefits despite meeting eligibility requirements. The following year the state said only a small percentage of the 16,000 people who lost coverage didn't meet the requirements.
"It's the way programs like this are implemented," Kellams told the committee. "People who are working are going to get caught in the red tape. That's what we saw with Medicaid. It's so hard for them to work through the bureaucratic system to show they're working. It was very difficult for them to work that system."
Underwood told the committee the work requirement would free up public housing for people who "truly need those services" and promote self-sufficiency.
"It's a common-sense policy and one most Arkansans would be in agreement with," he said.
Underwood sponsored 2021 legislation that removed temporary work exemptions from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps. Act 419 removed exemptions for SNAP recipients aged 18 to 49 years old who don't have dependent children and are reentering society after being in prison, a halfway house or drug and alcohol treatment program.
Kellams said the public housing work requirement would apply to more people than Underwood's food stamp bill, noting it would require people as old as 64 to work part-time or volunteer. The exemption for people caring for dependent children is also narrower, applying only to those with a child younger than 4 months.
"Research shows that work requirements don't improve employment outcomes or raise people out of poverty," she told the committee. "It's easier for people to get stable employment if they first have stable housing. We shouldn't take it away from those who have trouble getting on their feet."
Rep. David Ray, R-District 40, of Maumelle, said the work requirement is needed in light of the thousands of unfilled jobs in the state. He said there are 60,000 job openings in Arkansas and 7 million working-age adult men who aren't participating in the national workforce.
"Some of the testimony characterized the work requirement as almost punitive," he told the committee. "That bothers me. Work is a good thing. It's beneficial to individuals and society. It promotes human flourishing and fulfillment. I don't think it's cruel or inhumane to ask able-bodied adults to work part-time in exchange for government services."