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There is no question that many families suffered financial setbacks as the coronavirus swept across the nation two years ago. Today I’d like to discuss my vision to stabilize housing and to assist Arkansans with opportunities to move up the economic ladder.
Arkansas’s unemployment rate rose to more than 10 percent in the early months of the pandemic. The federal government stepped in with Emergency Rental Assistance, which allowed many to remain in their homes and softened the financial blow for landlords.
But our economy has returned, jobs are plentiful, and our unemployment rate is even better than before the pandemic. Many still are recovering, but as employment opportunities abound, we are returning to our pre-pandemic assistance programs.
Our goal is to educate Arkansans so they can move into trades that will allow them to build a career that will support their family. We must do more than pay the rent.
Arkansans want to work. We recognize the dignity that comes with earning a living rather than a lifetime of accepting help. For this to work, we must assess the needs of individuals. What training does a person need? What challenges prevent a parent from finding a job? Some need help to overcome a mental illness or an addiction to alcohol or another substance.
We still have programs that assist renters, including the Emergency Solutions Grants, the Community Services Block Grants, and the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
Arkansans’s belief in the value of work has been a foundation of my approach to lending a government hand to those in need. I recently informed the U.S. Treasury that Arkansas would accept no more than about $58 million in funds the federal government is offering through the second round of the Emergency Rental Assistance program. That is about 39 percent of the total the state was offered.
We still have approximately $16.5 million available in housing stability funds through other programs, and that includes more than $6 million for rental assistance. So we don’t need the entire $146 million the federal government offered. The money we do accept from the second round of Emergency Rental Assistance could better be used to continue pilot programs with various nonprofits from Our House to Restore Hope and others, or to start new programs that promote housing stability.
I thought long and hard about whether to accept all of the federal funds, but I didn’t think we should take the money when we already have rental assistance funds available through other programs. It makes no sense to start an absolutely new rental-assistance program that would make it too easy for people to accept help rather than improve their job skills.
The federal money also came with strings and limited our flexibility in program-integrity efforts.
We are not going to ignore the needs of Arkansans. Community action agencies throughout the state can distribute aid from the remaining funds.
But now that we are putting the pandemic behind us, we must focus on giving Arkansans the best kind of help, which is the chance to train and the ability to succeed. Our goal is not only to help someone find work today, but to help them achieve the dignity and pride of putting their family into a house and putting food on the table.