Overview of the Legislation
Arkansas State House Representative Mary Bentley (R) has submitted House Bill 1035 as an act to be considered during the 91st General Assembly of the State of Arkansas which will convene in 2017. HB 1035 has two purposes; 1) restrict food stamp benefits to the purchase of healthy foods and 2) address obesity among persons living in poverty who by “overconsumption of excessively sugared foods, food products, and beverages increases the risk of obesity and other diseases” (HB 1035, Section 1, (a), 2).
In summary, HB 1035 seeks to influence the health of low income Arkansas citizens receiving SNAP benefits by restricting benefits to the purchase of foods and beverages possessing nutritional value as determined by the Department of Human Services (DHS). DHS will develop these restrictions based on current programs such as Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) and the implementation of the modified program will depend on DHS having approval from the Department of Agriculture.
On face value, Representative Bentley’s proposal serves to address a needed concern in our state but like all government interactions there will be unintended consequences. Immediately, restricting food purchases to healthy foods will cause men and women to purchase food at a higher cost and therefore, impact purchasing power. Secondly, SNAP acts a “supplement” to an existing, though limited household income, creating a situation in which another income source will be needed to make up the loss due to the purchase of higher priced foods. It is important to understand who are the men and women who will be impacted by this legislation.
The Obvious Need
The United States Census data reports 13.5% of persons are currently living in poverty. In our state of Arkansas, 19.1% of persons or 568,836 beautiful persons are living in poverty. In a land of material prosperity, men, women, and children are the working poor seeking many times to make decisions between rent and utilities, groceries and medicine. It is a curious thing our legislatures are quick to amend and financially restrict programs which impact the poor and not as quick to limit their own spending power. When was the last time a legislature proposed spending restrictions on its own bureaucracy? I am willing to be corrected. More importantly, who are these men and women?
Angela is a single mother of two. Angela works in the medical field assisting doctors with patients and based on her hourly wage of working forty hours per week Angela qualifies for SNAP. Angela, could take a second job but such an action would not allow her to be home for her children after school hours. So, what would you do?
Carl is a single father of two. Carl spent two years working with DHS to gain custody of his children who experienced a terrible situation of abuse in the home of their biological mother. Carl secured employment at a local car wash and uses SNAP to provide meals for his children. When the weather is bad, Carl does not work. SNAP functions as a necessary resource for his children.
Per the USDA, an Arkansas household receives an average monthly benefit of $252.57 through SNAP. The proposed legislation will impact 214,056 households or 468,904 persons in our state. Open a refrigerator and you will find generic three liter sodas, basic eggs, milk, and close to out of date meat. Take a moment, pull a seat up to the kitchen table of these households and look in the grocery bags of these men and women. You will see knock off Cheerios, potato chips in a yellow bag, and maybe those vanilla cookies that come in the long three rows. These are typically not the goods you will find in Kroger on Salem or Whole Foods on Chenal Parkway. These are men and women who are taking what they have and putting food in their stomachs to make it through the day.
The Responsibility of an Individual and Society
Human beings are participants in a shared reality possessing a common bond because of their personalities of rationality, creativity, and need for affiliation. In other words, we are all brothers and sisters regardless of ethnicity, religion, or economics. As individual human beings, we are the center of responsible action and each of us must live in a manner which extends our individual lives in a moral and ethical manner. Simultaneously we exist alongside other individuals. Individuals mobilize to create a society to maximize individual lives and accomplish a set of goals based on shared values. In the context of a society, the tension between individual needs and societal preservation exists. The individual has the responsibility to act morally alongside his or her neighbor which includes the use of resources. The society acts to serve the individual, especially the weakest, so the society can continue to flourish.
Our society determines to address food insecurity by establishing SNAP and improve an individual’s opportunity to purchase food. The individual in response to such generosity has a moral obligation to use such resources for that expressed purpose. Under the proposed legislation, the representatives of Arkansas identify it is necessary to create amendments to this program and yet the proposed approach does not necessarily address the second objective of obesity reduction through healthy eating. Therefore, what role can the society and individual play in improving the use of SNAP and obesity reduction?
Recommendations to the Legislature, Community, and Individual
In the Gospels, Jesus looks over a mass of men, women, and certainly children which had been following him and listening to his teachings. At one point, a disciple discerns the hunger among the people and Jesus states, “You give them something to eat.” What follows are some improvements which can be made to HB 1035
Therefore, as we discuss this bill in the upcoming legislature let us all remember to seek to participate in a beloved community. In a community in which individuals who are hungry and thirsty experience satisfaction and the community works passionately to act compassionately and steward our resources well.